Western tactics and Ottoman armies

A nice example and a warning that one should not expect much from borrowing innovations of an alien civilisation:

‘According to Brantome, Süleyman specifically recruited experienced infantry captains from the French Army in North Italy, probably in the 1530s (when sultan and French king were happily allied against Habsburg Spain). Was Süleyman just looking for a few more brave renegades – or was he seeking to reform the janissary corps on the model of the new infantry tactics of the West? In light of this latter possibility, it is fascinating to note that despite the presence of tens of thousands of experienced European veterans in all the major Mediterranean Muslim armies – in the army of the sharif of Morocco as well as that of the Turk – there is no evidence that any of the new tactics of the West ever entered an army of the East. Weapons technology spread, but not tactical technique. Assuming innovation was desired, the only conclusion possible is that the cultural barriers were simply too high for transmission to take place. This conclusion is reinforced by the record of later European experts hired to reform the Ottoman Army in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, who found it almost impossible to enforce changes that went against the cultural grain.

Like many a Christian prince, Süleyman was personally fascinated by pistols, as were other well-placed Ottomans. According to a Habsburg ambassador, at mid sixteenth century a Turkish prince attempted to rearm his personal retinue with firearms, but horsemen refused to have anything to do with the weapons and so the attempted innovation, fascinatingly similar to contemporary cavalry experiments in western Europe, was a failure. Aristocratic distaste for firearms was also present in the West, but there it was a minority and reactionary sentiment. This was not so in Ottoman lands, where janissary slave soldiers adopted the new weapons, but the landed nobility remained aloof’. (Arnold, Thomas F. Renaissance at War. London: Cassell & Co, 2001. Pp. 119-121)


Filed under 16th century, Ottoman, War & society

Spain of the Golden Age at a glance

ʻEveryone fought, from the Duke of Alba, a Spanish grandee, to Pizarro, a swineherd. They all fought: noblemen and labourers, shepherds and burghers, scholars and magnates, clergymen and rogues, clerks and knights. Every region of Spain sent its sons to fight. Garcilaso, Ercilla, Cetina, Alcázar, Cervantes, Lope de Vega, Calderón fought. An entire people fought, without differences of class, loyalty, duty, profession or wealth.
‘They fought over the Andes and in the Alpine foothills, on the plains of the Po and on the Mexican plateau; beside the Tiber against the Pope, and beside the Mapocho against Arauco; on the banks of the River Plate and the Danube, the Elbe and the Tagus, the Orinoco and the Escalda; at Pavia and Cuzco, in the Alpujarras and in the Amazon jungles, in Tunisia and in Amberes, in the Gulf of Lepanto and off the English coast, at Navarino and Terceira, in La Goleta and La Habana, in Algeria and in the Philippines, in Lombardy and in Naples; at all four points of the compass in France, from Provence to Brittany, from the banks of the Bidassoa to the banks of the Marne and from Rousillon to Normandy; in the Netherlands, in Portugal, in Africa and in Ireland…’
(Claudio Sánchez Albornoz, ‘España, un enigma histórico’).

Written like a magic spell. But true to the last word.


Filed under 16th century, Spain, War & society

Army of Flanders

A moving and accurate description of the Spanish Army of Flanders by Fernando Gonzalez de Leon (from ‘The Road to Rocroi: Class, Culture and Command in the Spanish Army of Flanders, 1567-1659’ 2009):
‘As a royal courtier and chronicler put it, the Army of Flanders was “one of the greatest treasures that any monarchy or empire has ever had in the ancient and modern ages.”. . . The budget of the Army of Flanders amounted to over one half of total Crown expenditures. . . As Geoffrey Parker points out, this was more money than many European kings could spend. . . No other contemporary army had such a deep and well articulated structure of command, nowhere else but in the tercios were each rank’s responsibilities so clearly and permanently defined, no other army counted on such a large group of salaried leading officers serving with permanent patents and no other force had such a comprehensive and professional staff of civil servants in its financial and judicial services. In sharp contrast with contemporary armies, most military functions in the Spanish armed forces were carried out by professional officers commissioned and paid by the King, not private entrepreneurs or foreign mercenaries’.

Oh how I love his focus on command. Personally, I think that evolution of control and command hap far more impact on warfare than purely technical innovations. Can talk about that for hours, but not sure anyone’s interested. Discussion of musket’s penetrating power tends to draw more attention than details of increasing number of NCO’s.


Filed under 16th century, 17th century, Spain, War & society

Nobles at war

One of the most important things to remember about early modern wars is that kings could not wage them on their own. They needed contribution of noblemen and wealthy townsmen. But from tonwsmen kings needed only money, nobles were indispensible for both money and personal service. In the dawn of the modern state without bureaucracy and military schools only nobles bred for warfare could provide officers. And we know that armies required more and more officers every decade as complexity of warfare grew along with Military Revolution. The custom was to fight as a family: fathers, sons, brothers, nephews and cousins campaigned together providing unequalled cohesion. Also, nobles brought to war their retinues, clients and mercenaries. Refusal of noblemen to enter the war meant that the war could not be waged with success or could not be started at all, as Christian IV of Denmark found out to his grief, twice.

Value of nobles to warring kings is obvious. But what was in war for them? Here is the best summary of the issue I ever saw, in quotes taken from different places of “War, State, and Society in England and the Netherlands 1477-1559” by Steven Gunn and David Grummitt (2007): Continue reading

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Filed under 16th century, Statecraft, War & society

Merits of cynicism to historians, especially regarding wars

‘War is the continuation of politics by other means.’ Although not all conflicts can – or should – be explained in such terms (some arising from emotional and irrational origins), this interpretation is basically sound and judicious; it is particularly apposite to the Middle Ages. Beyond the political objectives, we must also unearth the financial ones: these are rarely buried deeply but are frequently obscured by the noble ideals and moral justifications proclaimed by the warring protagonists. Politics means power means money. It is only rarely dangerous that too much cynicism is harmful to the process of historical interpretation; it is usually the case that the more cynical one is the closer one arrives at the historical truth.

(Blood Cries Afar: The Forgotten Invasion of England 1216 by Sean McGlynn)

I couldn’t agree more.

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Business of war

Hurrah, I have finished the last 50 pages of David Parrott’s The Business of War: Military Enterprise and Military Revolution in Early Modern Europe. This is both the best and the worst book on early modern warfare that I’ve read in last 5 years.

It is the best because it debunks an unprecedented number of myths on mercenary armies, supply, evolution of state and other important issues.

It is the worst because of

huge over-complicated sentences that somtimes span across half a page, and in many places a simple thought is told in ten sentences instead of only one. That’s very uncomfortable after clear and vibrant style of authors like Hale or Mallett. But it’s not author’s fault: it’s editors of Cambridge University Press who did not earn their bread. So I have read it in small chunks of 20-40 pages, which took a long time.

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Filed under 16th century, 17th century, Books, War & society

How to describe a medieval battle

Here is a wonderful quote about creating battle narratives:

The reconstruction of a medieval battle is inevitably a tentative, cautious process. In the case of Stoke Field, the surviving printed sources and chance archaeological discoveries tell us only part of the story, and some writers have suggested that there is little merit in producing a version which is partly speculative and possibly inaccurate. John Gillingham’s comment that ‘many such maps [of the battle of Bos worth] have been drawn but, apart from the fun of making them, they are all quite worthless’ is still mentioned approvingly, although those who quote him and then go on to write about the battle invariably produce maps of their own!

Dr Michael K. Jones has argued that it is virtually impossible to determine the course of events in a medieval conflict and express them diagrammatically. ‘By piecing together a number of accounts, each from its own perspective, we can recapture some of the key moments and gather a sense of what took place (but) the order in which they took place, and the cause and effect between them, is ultimately unknowable’. The terrain, strategy and tactics are, he says, relevant ‘if available evidence allows them to be determined’; but it is more profitable to consider the intangible, the motivation and mindset of the principal combatants. ‘A surer sense of battle is to be found by focusing on why men fought’ rather than by drawing neat maps which can never adequately express the chaos of the melee.

It is, of course, entirely reasonable to examine, and indeed speculate upon, the wider, psychological aspects of a battle, but difficult to see how the thoughts of the soldiers (which are ultimately unknowable) can replace the verifiable reality of the landscape and the ways in which an army could, or could not, be deployed within it. The key to understanding a battle is surely to be found not in Jones’s ‘intangible’ but in a scientific and methodical approach to the surviving evidence, one which seeks to reconstruct the historic terrain and is based on a full archaeological survey, a careful examination and concordance of the surviving literary sources, and a knowledge of the military practices of the period. It should be possible to use both documentary evidence and soil sampling techniques to determine areas of cultivation, marsh, wood-land and the courses of roads and the river in the late-medieval era, and systematic fieldwalking by volunteers armed with metal detectors could lead to discoveries which would tell us much more about precisely where and how the battle was fought.

Taken from: Stoke Field: The Last Battle of the Wars of the Roses by David Baldwin (regardless of the title this is not a book about that battle, i.e. the battle itself is decribed very briefly while the main theme is who and why opposed Henry Tudor or fought on his side).

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Filed under 15th century, Books, Tactics

Random thoughts on old books

There is a strange feeling that I get after reading some classic works on military history. Many old authors are primarily important for historiography (history of the history, which is funny when you think about its ultimate utility), but there are still mysteries left on time-worn pages.
Sometimes in books of Delbruck, Oman, Taylor or Denison I stumble upon an interesting detail that seems plausible, but there are no footnotes or other directions for primary source of that detail. Where does it come from? A mystery.
We have to assume that Oman and Taylor were careful in their studies and most probably had some reason to insert that detail. Their reputation is solid, though works stand corrected. But it is a mauvais ton to quote Oman instead of primary source, so these details have to be left where they are, until we find their source.

However, I have to say to the old historians that omitting proper footnotes and bibliography was very uncourteous. Why, oh why…

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Filed under 16th century, Books

Armies on the move

The first sign of amateurish book about Early Modern warfare is its focus on battles instead of more important aspects of campaigns. (Second sign is an opinion about non-existence of consistent, fast and mobile strategy in that period).

A lot was written to challenge notions of primitive campaigns in last two decades. Here is a perfect example (footnotes omitted) from an excellent book War in England 1642-1649 by Barbara Donagan (hardcover 2008, paperback and kindle 2010):

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Filed under 17th century, England, Strategy

Furies: War in Europe, 1450-1700 by Lauro Martines

I couldn’t miss this new book on early modern wars. Author’s backlog was respectable enough to make me first-day-buyer (I heartily recommend his April’s Blood book about plot against Medicis). I have already finished it by now and here is a brief note (I do not consider myself competent enough for a detailed review).

The book is interesting and well written. The author had put some real emotions into the text, but kept it moderate, so the book is far from dry but is not too irksome in pushing of moral appraisals. However, I am subjective here, because I share most of author’s thought on state, war and their effect on society.
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Filed under 16th century, 17th century, Books, War & society