Category Archives: 18th Century

The Evolution of Warfare and the Crimea

“History” is a problematic concept because it is very much tied to a specific culture. History departments derive from the medieval university culture of Europe and we have to accept that most people, at most of the time, have lived without any notion of it.

Perception is a key to understanding this phenomena: in the history of warfare, violent confrontations have in large part been endemic. Two parties confront each other and display a show of brutal force and often the conflict is resolved symbolically by a single dual or one side is hidden behind a fortification, while tribute is discussed.

A perfect example of endemic warfare would be the 18th and 19th century Irish culture of “Shillelagh Law” where various “factions” or gangs would assemble to finish an argument with the most primitive of weapons: a wooden cudgel made of oak or blackthorn.

This phenomena was best described in the works of William Carleton, and can be seen portrayed in the Hollywood film “Gangs of New York.”

Two sides proclaim their beef, off fly the hats and bloodshed commences until at least one of the ring leaders falls, and then the crowds disperse.

The shared perception of both sides is that there was an argument, the argument should be settled with satisfaction. Satisfaction can be satiated often with little to no bloodshed.

Even in duals, we can read that very often men came to an arrangement before lead was discharged. President Andrew Jackson often feuded on behalf of his slandered wife, whereas Lincoln’s dual ended before lead was to fly.

At a single time and a single place, a culture of science arose. Symbolic, shared rituals had become meaningless, and exactness was the only sign of certitude.

This culmination was in Western Europe.  Carl von Clausewitz wrote the tome on scientific warfare. In this warfare, the enemy was to be pressed until absolute triumph was achieved. The commanders were to rationally calculate their chances as would an accountant, tallying up the score after every battle.

The 21st century has witnessed a resurgence in endemic warfare. We now fight, not for a brutal display of pride, but utilize a different method: an invocation of the goddess of “fairness” and “tolerance.”

One of the proclaimed reasons for the last few wars America has fought was for “women’s rights,” and the right to cast a ballot. On the other hand, the metric of capital accumulation is also ever present: we don’t go to war if it hurts business.  Many European countries do not want to damage their business deals with Russia at this time.

Russian history is difficult to understand because it lacks a cohesive understanding of itself without violent displays of aggression.

In Russia, nothing is original or organic.

The Slavic Messianic idea that Russia believes in is an import from 18th century Polish Messianism.

Slavophilia is difficult to believe in for an outside observer because Kievan Rus was founded by Norsemen, and the tribes that settled under it were mostly Finns, and a few Slavs.

Many of the leaders of Russia’s past came from Tatar stock, and there are many “mongolisms” in Russian culture, such as oriental bureaucratic despotism and the belief in a divine, strong leader.

What Russia has maintained is a firm belief in the nation-state, while Western nations only see an endemic worldview of transfers of money. The man with the pot of gold is the “big chief” and others are supposed to bow to their wisdom.

This is an ancient invocation of a superstitious notion, and our belief in endemic (economic) warfare will not suffice to bring down a nation-state which believes it has a destiny to expand unto infinity.

It is true that Russia and Ukraine are ruled by money and by oligarchy, but Russian people believe in the nation-state.

This self-perception in and of itself is the Bear’s main power at this point in time.

Even if the oligarchs compare each others powers by the size of their yacht fleet, as long as Putin achieves deference for aggressive tactics from his people, we will be facing trouble.

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Book Review: The Great Degeneration by Niall Ferguson

If there is one book in the realm of history or political science any informed person needs to read this year then Niall Ferguson’s The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die is it. In this short book Ferguson goes right to the heart of why the West seems to be in decline and analyzes in short, incisive prose why that is so and perhaps what can be done to reverse it. The book itself is only 147 pages of text divided into an introduction, four topical chapters and a conclusion. There are twenty pages of notes but no bibliography or index, which is unusual for one of Dr. Ferguson’s books.

The whole thrust of this book is that it is the degeneration of civil, that is to say private, institutions, the failure of the Rule of Law, the distortion of economies by social engineering, and the breakdown of trust in civil society that are at the heart of why the West is in decline.  The bright spot is that the decline is not terminal, or at least not yet, it can still be reversed.

I got the impression while reading this book that I was reading a modern day Juvenal or Vegetius lamenting the degradation of the Roman world.  I only hope that this time the West gets it right and our children and grandchildren are not subject to another Dark Age as the West throws away the fruits of its culture.

I highly recommend this book both to people who agree and disagree with the central points.  If nothing else this book provides a starting point for a conversation about where society is and where it is going or should be going.  Once again, Dr. Ferguson has a produced a highly relevant and readable book that should make everyone think.

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Book Review: Our Lives, Our Fortunes and Our Sacred Honor: The Forging of American Independence, 1774-1776 by Richard R. Beeman

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I received my copy of this book free from the author. I was not paid for this review and the opinion expressed is purely my own]

Our Lives, Our Fortunes and Our Sacred Honor: The Forging of American Independence, 1774-1776 by Richard Beeman is the tale of the First and Second Continental Congresses from the opening of the First until the Declaration of Independence in July, 1776. It was serendipitous that I received this book from the publisher when I did because the events leading to and surrounding the Declaration of Independence have recently become an area of interest of mine.

The book is 418 pages of text separated into 25 chapters with two appendices, and index, and extensive notes. The prose is clear, well written, and even entertaining at times. The narrative covers the events in the first two Continental Congresses from the first meeting to the Declaration of Independence and a little beyond. This is not meant to be the story of the revolution and military events are only mentioned in the context of how they impacted the deliberations of the Congress. This is the story of how the English colonies went from being loyal subjects of the crown to 56 of the most prominent men in America signing a document sundering that relationship forever.

Before reading this book I had what I hope was an average understanding of the issues surrounding the months and years leading up to the Declaration of Independence. After reading this volume I had a much clearer understanding of not only the issues that cause the break between the colonies and England but also the different tensions between the colonies themselves. Too often the history of the drive for independence presents the colonies as a monolithic bloc, which as Dr. Beeman makes clear was anything but the case. Independence was not the goal of the majority of delegates to the First Continental Congress and it was only a combination of colonial reasonableness and British intransigence and insensitivity to colonial aspirations that led to the ultimate break.

It is fascinating to read of the maneuvering that went on in the Congress and how it was not until the last minute that it was clear that Independence would happen. Another interesting aspect is pricking the inflated bubble surrounding the role John Adams played in the Congress and the realization that Thomas Jefferson may have written the Declaration of Independence but he was a late comer to the Congress itself. Perhaps the most interesting appreciation one gains from reading this book is realizing the reluctance with which most colonists took the ultimate step of declaring Independence.

This is an outstanding work that I highly recommend to anyone who wants to truly understand how and why America got to revolting against the authority of the English crown. In fact, this book should be required reading in every college survey course on American History as it presents a clear and well explained rationale for Independence. It is also suitable for 11th or 12th grade high school students. This is an outstanding book that should become an instant classic and needs to be on the bookshelf of anyone who fancies themselves knowledgeable about the Revolutionary Period.

The Transformation of War Wrought by the Armies of the French Revolution and Napoleon

In the years before the French Revolution, warfare in Europe was moribund at best.  The wars of the period were dynastic wars fought to maintain the traditional balance of power and were generally limited in scale and scope.  The armies of this era were professional armies with an aristocratic officer class and private soldiers drawn from the lowest segments of society and subject to brutal discipline.  Desertion and looting were rife in the pre-revolutionary or old regime army’s, which partly explains the discipline, the other part of the discipline equation was the need for soldiers to execute their battlefield actions in concert to maximize the effect of their weapons. [1]  Lastly, pre-revolutionary eighteenth century warfare was characterized by small field armies, reliance on depots for supplies, mechanistic battlefield evolutions, and wars for limited gains.

After French defeats in the Seven Years War against the Prussians, the French army began to look inward to discover the cause of their defeat.  This led some officers, notably Jean-Baptiste de Gribeuval and Count Jacques de Guibert to propose reforms in the way the French army was organized, equipped, and the way it fought.  Some of these reforms such as the artillery reforms of Gribeuval were begun before the revolution.  Other reforms such as the tactical and organizational changes proposed by Guibert were not successfully introduced until after the French revolution.

The way wars were fought was overthrown by the French Revolution.  The wars of the First and second Coalition were not fought to maintain the balance of war, rather they were fought by the French to first defend their revolution and later to export it the revolutionary ideals to the other peoples of Europe.  This does not explain French success in the wars fought during the early years of the revolution.  The French success benefited from the far thinking reforms began by the aristocratic officers in the last years of the Ancién Regime, reforms that were only fully implemented after the revolution and were suited to the type of soldier in the new French army.

One of the major changes of the French revolutionary armies is their tactical style of fighting.  The French did not fully abandon the line as their tactical formation of choice but they did incorporate new formations into their assault doctrine that gave them greater flexibility on the battlefield.  The assault column is the formation most widely cited as being peculiar to the French armies early in the revolutionary period.  The column formation itself however is like many of the tactical developments of the revolution, a product of pre-war French military thinking.  The column-in-line formation was codified in French doctrine in 1791 but it had been theorized as early as 1772 by Count Jacques de Guibert of the French Royal Army.[2]

The French use of the column for assault was a revolutionary change in tactical battlefield maneuver.  Doctrine throughout Europe held that the line-of-battle was the only effective method of attacking because it maximized the fire of assaulting infantry.  The French initially experimented with column formation in 1792 but its initial use was a failure and it was not revived until 1794.[3]  However, once the French armies were trained and particularly after the creation of amalgamated demi-brigades under Carnot, the column of attack was used successfully throughout the revolutionary and Napoleonic era.  The column in the attack was almost a French signature during this era.  When the French attacked in column they were able to attack as they marched this meant that almost no pause was necessary to move from the march to the attack.  Attack in column allowed the attacking army to deploy faster than defenders could get into line-of-battle; it also allowed the attacker to maneuver rapidly both on the battlefield and around the flanks of an enemy army.

Attack in column was not the only tactical innovation of the French; initially the French also made greater use of skirmishers than the other continental armies.  Skirmishers were individual soldiers who preceded the line-of-battle and engaged targets of opportunity in the enemy line in an effort to both cause casualties and spread confusion.  Skirmishers were used by the other armies of Europe but never in great numbers because of the makeup of the common soldiers and their propensity to desert.  Revolutionary soldiers by contrast were not as prone to desertion as the armies of the Ancién Regime had been.[4]

The idea of using a mass of skirmishers was first proposed by Lafayette based on his experiences of the effectiveness of them in the American Revolutionary War.  He did get a rifle company introduced into each battalion but because of the difficulty of producing the weapons, rifle armed skirmishers did not become widespread until around 1830.[5]  This did not stop the French from using masses of musket armed skirmishers in front of their battle line and using them to harass their opponents prior to launching their main attack.

They also organized their army into divisions that could maneuver independently.  A division was composed of infantry, cavalry, and artillery and numbered between 10,000 and 16,000 men.  The division was big enough that it could fight on its own until the other divisions of the army joined up.

The royal army had pioneered new methods of cannon manufacture and mounting that were also only implemented after the revolution.  The French advances in artillery were the result of the work of Jean-Baptiste de Gribeuval, who implemented radical changes in the way French cannon were manufactured as well as mounted to their carriages in the years prior to the revolution.[6]  These changes made cannon both lighter and more mobile.  For the first time it was possible for cannon to be maneuvered effectively on the battlefield.

The capabilities of the new cannon were not fully exploited until the revolutionary era.  This was simply because the French aside from their assistance to the English colonists in the American Revolution did not fight in any major wars between the Seven Years War with Prussia and the War of the First Coalition.  The current trend in historical thought that the military reforms of the Revolution had their genesis in the pre-revolutionary French Royal Army is almost certainly correct.[7]  Addington specifically attributes these reforms to the Ancién Regime and Parker, Brodie, and Blanning expand on it too.  This theory does not take away from the accomplishments of the French armies of 1792-1794.  The armies of the early revolution were hurried creations that did not have the benefit of the training, drill, or the leavening of veterans that would happen under Carnot starting in 1794.  Given the rawness of the early levies, it is astonishing that the revolution was not crushed by the First Coalition.

The French revolutionary armies were the beneficiaries of the reformist thought and activities of the later years of the Ancién Regime.  In addition, the citizen armies of France were uniquely suited to exploiting the type of mobile warfare advocated by the reformists.  It was the élan and motivation of the citizen armies that allowed the French to adopt some of the novel reforms proposed during the Ancién Regime.  The widespread use of skirmishers in particular, was only possible because the French did not have to worry as much about their soldiers deserting without close supervision.

It is also important to remember that the French army did not disintegrate after the revolution, many royalist officers left the army, but some also stayed and these officers, combined with the vast majority of common soldiers that also remained provided critical continuity with the old Royal Army.[8]  However, the French Navy by contrast, did suffer greatly from the loss of experienced royalist officers who left the service.  It has been pointed out that revolutionary zeal in the navy was not enough to replace the experience lost after the revolution in the navy.[9]  It took more than desire to be a good seaman, especially in the Age of Sail.  The British demonstrated this time and time again as they regularly trounced French and Spanish fleets whenever they engaged them during the revolutionary period.

Current historical thought holds that the French Revolutionary army was the beneficiary of the reform that started in the French Royal Army after their defeat in the Seven Years War.  This is arguably the correct interpretation.  It is also just as correct to point out that it was the only the greater cohesion, morale, motivation, and devotion of the revolutionary soldiers that made implementation of these reforms a realistic possibility.  In short, it was the fusion of the zeal of revolutionary soldiers and the forward thinking of pre-war theorists that made the French Revolutionary Army such a successful military instrument.

Bibliography

Adams, George. The Growth of the French Nation. New York, NY: The Macmillan Company, 1912.
Addington, Larry. The Patterns of War Since the Eighteenth Century. 2nd. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1994.
Blanning, T.C.W. The French Revolutionary Wars: 1787-1802. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996.
Brodie, Bernard, and Fawn Brodie. From Crossbow to H-Bomb: The Evolution of the Tactics and Weapons of Warfare. Bloomington, IN: Indiana Unveristy Press, 1973.
De Tocqueville, Alexis. The Old Regime and the French Revolution. Translated by Stuart Gilbert. New York: Anchor Books, 1955.
Jones, Archer. The Art of War in the Western World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Parker, Geoffrey, ed. The Cambridge History of Warfare. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
Preston, Richard A., Alex Roland, and Sydney F. Wise. Men in Arms: A History of Warfare and Its Interrelationships with Western Society. 5th Edition. Mason, OH: Thomson-Wadsworth Publishing, 2005.
Von Clausewitz, Carl. On War. Edited by Michael Howard and Peter Paret. Translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976.


[1] Parker, Geoffrey, ed. The Cambridge History of Warfare: Cambridge University Press, 2005. p. 180
[2] Ibid. p. 194
[3] Preston, Richard A.; Roland, Alex; Wise, Sydney F. Men in Arms: A History of Warfare and Its Interrelationships with Western Society. 5th Edition. Mason, OH: Thomson-Wadsworth Publishing, 2005. p.161
[4] Blanning, T.C.W. The French Revolutionary Wars: 1787-1802. New york: St. Martin’s Press, 1996. p. 87
[5] Brodie, Bernard; Brodie, Fawn. From Crossbow to H-Bomb: The Evolution of the Tactics and Weapons of Warfare. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1973. pp. 105-106
[6] Ibid. p. 17
[7] Addington, Larry H. The Patterns of War since the Eighteenth Century. 2nd.  Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1994. pp. 19-22.
[8] Parker. pp. 195-196
[9] Ibid. p. 210