Baltic Studies 6:
Jürgen Luh, Ancien Régime Warfare and the Military Revolution - a Study.(INOS Groningen, 2000) 224 pp., with illustrations, tables and index. ISBN 90-73432-06-5. 22.-





1. Maintenance

2. Siege Warfare

3. Weaponry and Tactics

Archives and Bibliography

‘The abolition of the pike’, Adam Dietrich Heinrich von Bülow concluded in 1805, ‘marks the last period of the system of blank arms.’ It was this measure that formed the foundation for all subsequent perfections of the firing tactics. This is one of the most important epochs of warfare; it was at that time that the new system (of war) actually came into existence. On the basis of his studies, he arrived at the conclusion that any change of arms inevitably led to ‘a revolution of warfare.’
Michael Roberts, who was the first to recognise the radical change of warfare and military organisation during this early modern period of world history as a revolutionary innovation. In his 1955 inaugural lecture at Queen`s University in Belfast on The Military Revolution, 1560-1660, he pointed out the two main military developments which had ‘a lasting influence upon society at large.’
Firstly, the abolition of pikes and lances and their replacement by arquebuses, muskets and rifles led to a revolution in battle tactics, mainly carried through at the end of the sixteenth century. This, in turn, called for the expansion of armies as well as new standards of discipline and training. All of this was eventually achieved in the ‘revolution in training and drill’ and the uniformisation of troops and was, the actual reason for the creation of standing armies. Secondly, the tactical innovation brought about a ‘revolution in strategy.’ The wars spread territorially, with the consequence of a rapid increase in the number of troops after the Thirty Years’ War and a multiplication of war damage and costs.
For about twenty years, most scholars followed Roberts´s arguments. Then the first critical voice emerged. In 1976, Geoffrey Parker asked if the military revolution, after all, was a myth. On the basis of his own research on the Spanish army in Flanders, Parker started to doubt that the tactical and strategic innovations between 1560 and 1660 alone had led to a military revolution. What, then, had caused the unprecedented increase in soldiers, an increase which, after all, merits the term of military revolution? Parker`s simple answer to this question was: the appearance of the trace italienne, an entirely new defensive fortification system consisting of low, strong walls equipped with bastions and surrounded by trenches. To conquer (or besiege) them, many more men were needed than before. Additionally, the reforms of the administrative apparatus that took place in the third and eighth decades of the sixteenth century, led to a further rise in the number of troops.
In his 1988 book on The Military Revolution he detailed his earlier findings. According to Parker, the appearance of new, artillery-proof fortification types around 1520 not only led to the hegemony of the siege warfare within the military system of the Occident, it also resulted in a substantial enlargement and internal reform of the armies. The cavalry lost its significance, because the attack of a place protected by bastions necessitated a large number of disciplined infantrymen. Moreover, the defence of the new fortification systems, which spread from Italy first to the north west of Europe, then to central and parts of Eastern Europe, called for an unprecedented amount of soldiers and firearms. In short: ‘Warfare in early modern Europe was certainly transformed by three important, related developments - a new use of firepower, a new type of fortifications, and an increase in army size.’ Various and well-founded objections have been raised against Parker`s chronology of the military revolution. First of all by Jeremy Black; for example against the geographical expanse and the significance attached to the individual components of this development. No one, however, has seriously questioned the importance of these three changes, which, according to Parker, constituted the essence of the military revolution.
During the time of the ancien régime, which is the subject of the present study, all of these developments had basically been completed. By 1700, the armies of the European states had attained a size unknown in their history. New fortification works secured militarily significant places in many parts of the continent. And the soldiers, now almost all equipped with firearms, disposed of a large number of artillery pieces for their support. The European powers now had to adapt the art of warfare to the results of the military revolution. They did so by keeping armies constantly armed, by transforming the fortification works of the trace italienne into comprehensive and costly defence systems, and by optimising their firepower in a series of new experiments.
Nevertheless, a war fought in Europe between 1660 and 1789 was not to be won by military means. Because in the end, as this book will show, the military revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries led to the military stagnation of the eighteenth century. That aspect is my principal justification for revisiting the art of warfare in the age of absolutism. Yet not all problems of ancien régime warfare will be addressed. For example, the very important questions of how to finance the now huge armies and how to raise so many soldiers permanently, were left out, as well as the question of the impact those appearances had on society. France, for example, went almost bankrupt after the Seven Years’ War and was not free of debt until the end of the old régime. Prussia, on the other hand, needed foreign subsidies, took out huge loans and deteriorated the standard of coinage just to survive the said fight. But still, both states managed to raise armies of unprecedented strength until the end of the eighteenth century and with these troops France and Prussia were able to fight on for years.
In this book the focus will be on one aspect: How did the military revolution affect the art of warfare in the late seventeenth and in the eighteenth centuries? The first chapter will examine in which way the huge new armies could logisticaly be provided by the absolutist states of early modern Europe (and if the states were able to do so at all). For that reason the chapter principally copes with both the problems concerning the nourishment of the armies as well as the health care for the soldiers. Chapter 2 focuses on the new-built fortifications, which were widespread throughout Europe and constantly in a more and more complex way. It will be shown how important fortresses remained for the art of war even in the eighteenth century. In the end the question arises to what extent the new use of firepower decided campaigns or entire wars (chapter 3). Could the armies overcome the adversities of successful warfare - the defensive lines and the difficulties in supplying the soldiers - through a massive use of flintlock muskets and guns? Here, as one will see, the analysis has come full circle. Therefore the military stagnation of the eighteenth century comes no longer as ‘something of a surprise’ but is explicable.