Mysteries of battle

Last 50 years of research help us see a much more vivid image of early modern warfare.  The concept of “military revolution” came to life after famous lecture of Michael Roberts in 1955, grew strong in works of Geoffrey Parker and finally was disemboweled by next generation of scholars. Numerous works advanced our knowledge of Renaissance wars far beyond former myths and misconceptions. But these studies also made clear that certain questions can’t be answered at all in conceivable future.

I think that we are most limited when it comes to war at tactical level. Battles, skirmishes and ambushes are still covered with shroud of uncertainty. When we deal with questions of the economic impact of wars or the role of warfare in evolution of state or any other “strategic” issues, we never see the dead-end. To solve such great riddles we need just sweat and time: more research and analysis of information will definitely give us a clear picture. But how can we know what really happened on the battlefield? We have lots of memoirs but warriors of 16th — 17th centuries didn’t tend to write about things that were common knowledge then, even if it’s completely unknown to us today. We have lots of manuals, but one has to wonder how much of these textbooks is pure theory that is unrelated to the practice of arms. Contemporary drawings and etchings can be even more unreliable because many artists simply never saw that battle (or any battle at all) with their own eyes. And worse, no one can tell you what really happened in the most intense moments of struggle, because you can’t comprehend what is going on around you in the heat and smoke and screaming and dying. Human mind also can mercifully erase memories of dread and horror.

Here are some examples of such mysteries of 16th — 17th centuries battle. First of all, what is happening in the end of a heavy cavalry charge? It is easy if one side breaks and runs, but what if both adversaries are equally staunch? How a heavy cavalry would crash into pikemen square? Into enemy cavalry? There are many theories and hypotheses, but prime sources are almost mute. “We rode through them” or “we smashed them” and that’s all.

Another riddle: how fast, how far, how accurate did arquebusiers and musketeers fire? This question actually has no lack of answers from both primary sources and modern experiments. But the problem is that there are too many contradicting answers. All we have is different numbers. We know that in the age of handmade guns and mercenary armies there were enormous variations in quality of these weapons and skill of the shooters, not to mention gunpowder, but we don’t have enough numbers for statistical analysis.

One more question without answer: forget about charge of heavy cavalry armed with lances, but what about reiters armed with pistols? How did they charge?  How often did they manage to perform true caracole, wheeling and firing at the enemy without charging with cold steel? How often did they ride straight into the enemy ranks to fire their pistols directly before and inside the mêlée? Prime sources are very obscure, we can’t even be sure whether the pistol armed cavalry attacked at trot or at gallop.

Today we know more about “small war”. Pitched battles were rare, sieges were more numerous, but still about 90% of fighting in 16th — 17th centuries is skirmishes of small groups of soldiers. There were many ambushes, raids and also activities that we’d call “covert operations’. What did they look like? What weapons were used in these small fights? Such unheroic struggles received too little attention from historians.

But this list of mysteries can go on and on so let me finish it by declaring hope that even if we never know the truth, our endless efforts still help us to get closer to it. Tomorrow we have to know more than we know today.

(Also, I still hope that one day a friendly alien will come to me offering HD footage of every single battle in human history).



Filed under Tactics

3 responses to “Mysteries of battle

  1. Pingback: “They shot at the skies”: soldiers and firearms of 16th century | Sellswords, mercenaries and condottieri

  2. Pingback: Definition of an early modern mercenary | Sellswords, mercenaries and condottieri

  3. paul

    “Also, I still hope that one day a friendly alien will come to me offering HD footage of every single battle in human history”

    That has been my wet dream ever since I was child :D

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