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Military Revolution in Early Modern Europe

The "military revolution" refers to the technological and organizational innovations that enabled Europe to replace Asia as the world's dominant military power between the Renaissance and Industrial Revolution. During the late Middle Ages, Asian armies routinely crushed European forces, as demonstrated by the collapse of the Crusades, the Mongolian invasion of Central Europe, and the Turkish conquest of the Balkans. The success of the Ottoman Turks in particular offered a powerful indictment of the superiority of Asian infantry and cavalry tactics, gunpowder weaponry, command hierarchies, and logistical support over the feudal armies of the West. Yet the military might of western Asia paled in comparison to the power of eastern Asia. The Ming Dynasty of China in the 15th century and the Mughal Empire of India in the 16th century each employed large standing armies armed with sophisticated weaponry and centralized bureaucracies. Nevertheless, by the late 18th century a revolution had occurred: European powers were routinely and decisively defeating Asian armies, as demonstrated by the Russia's conquest of the Crimea, the British East India Company's conquest of Bengal, and the French invasion of Egypt. China's turn at military humiliation would come with the First Opium War (1839–1842). This transfer of military superiority was the result of Western flexibility and Eastern rigidity with regard to technical and organizational changes. The motivation of Europeans to invest continuously in naval, siege, and field warfare innovations during the military revolution was a direct response to their interminable political conflicts. Yet the efficacy of these innovations was aided by their interaction with contemporaneous advances in science and technology.

Illustrating this process was the rise of Western naval supremacy during the 16th century. Especially critical was the Portuguese work of the 15th century under Prince Henry the Navigator and King John II. The Portuguese developed oceangoing vessels that relied on inanimate power for both propulsion and defense, and astronomical science for navigation. The result was the employment of the light and maneuverable caravel, and the heavy, fortresslike carrack for ocean voyages. By the early 16th century, these vessels employed both lanteen and square sails, and were armed with muzzle-loading artillery. Their navigators used the compass, quadrant, and tables of solar declination to determine latitude, as well as a Ptolemaic mapping system to chart their course. Equally significant was the carrack's ability to function simultaneously as a commercial and military vessel.

The Portuguese used their naval innovations to control the coast of Africa and enter the Indian Ocean by 1494. Their initial probe into Chinese waters, however, was decisively crushed in 1522 by the gunships of the Ming Dynasty. Chinese naval power was demonstrated during the early 15th century when Admiral Cheng Ho's fleets of war junks dominated the Indian Ocean. Changes in political priorities rather than technical conservatism led the Ming Dynasty to abandon its commitment to naval expansion. This left a partial vacuum in the Indian Ocean that the Portuguese quickly exploited.

Western naval rivalries stimulated the innovation of increasingly powerful warships during the late 16th century, including the oar- and sail-propelled galeasse that Hapsburgs used to crush the Turks at Lepanto in 1571, and the sleek galleon that the English used to deflect the Spanish Armada in 1588. Such naval innovations accelerated during the 17th century with the use of increasingly specialized naval vessels, including bomb ketches for offshore bombardments, frigates for long-range privateering, heavy warships with multiple gun decks for concentrated engagements, and the flutte for economical transportation. Consistent funding of scientific education and research also became a standard naval strategy in 17th-century Europe. The Royal Observatory founded by Charles II and the Paris Academy of Science founded by Colbert and Louis XIV are the most direct examples. The political demand for a practical technique to measure longitude, in fact, motivated much of the astronomical and horological research conducted during the 17th and 18th centuries.

On land, the Ming and Qing Dynasties of China, as well as the Mughal and Maratha Empires of India built enormous fortresses that were virtually impermeable to heavy siege artillery. They routinely employed gunpowder weaponry in their active defense as well. The Ottoman Empire, on the other hand, excelled in assaulting fortresses. Their siege of Constantinople in 1453 was a brilliant example of coordinated artillery, naval, and infantry action, while their sieges of Rhodes in 1522 and of Cambria in 1669 demonstrated a mastery of mining attacks. In terms of developing a comprehensive system of siege warfare, however, Western siege armies were outclassing their Asian counterparts by the early 16th century. Although Europeans had used large-caliber bombards to both assault and defend fortified positions during the second half of the 14th century, their enormous weight rendered them difficult to transport, while their stone projectiles made them difficult to supply. Towards the end of the Hundred Years' War (1338–1453), the French developed smaller caliber guns with higher muzzle velocities and placed them on stable carriages for greater mobility. The employment of corned gunpowder and iron shot further increased such artillery power. Thus armed, the French reduced all British strongholds in France except Calais between 1450–51, and crushed English field armies at Formigny and Castillon. Armed with such artillery, the Spanish reduced the Moslem fortresses in Granada to wrap up the Reconquista by 1492.

Although fortification designers did respond to artillery changes during the 15th century, it was in Italy during the Hapsburg-Valios Wars that effective countermeasures emerged with the trace italienne. Beginning with the Spanish and Portuguese in the early 16th century, and continuing with the Dutch, French, and British during the 17th and 18th centuries, the trace italienne allowed Europeans to maintain commercially viable strongholds around the world.

Equally significant for the European military ascendancy was the development of rational approaches to assaulting fortresses. The Dutch forces led by Maurice of Nassau (1567–1625) and Simon Stevin (1548– 1620) began using formal geometrical considerations to construct siege lines around Spanish-held fortresses in the 1590s. Sébastian Vauban (1633– 1707), the invincible French military engineer, optimized such a system during the wars of Louis XIV so that a commander could calculate precisely the time and resources needed to reduce a fortress with minimum casualties. Vauban's system relied on fortified artillery emplacements and carefully surveyed trenches that employed both concentric and zigzag geometries. This maximized the siege army's power, while minimizing the threat of enemy counterfire, sorties, and relieving armies. In contrast, Turkish siege lines were confused sprawls. This helps explain why the Ottoman thrusts into Western Europe after their conquest of Hungary in 1526 were frustrated by the growing network of trace italienne fortifications.

Another central element in the military revolution was the transition from small decentralized armies focused around feudal cavalry forces to disciplined national armies dominated by infantry and artillery firepower. This transition began during the 14th century with the devastation that French and Hapsburg knights suffered from the English longbow and Swiss pike, respectively. The vast training needed to use the longbow effectively, however, led to the crossbow's becoming the dominant missile weapon for Western infantry forces during the 15th century, followed by the harquebus or matchlock during the 16th century. The vulnerability of such forces to unexpected cavalry assaults, however, presented the problem of integrating them with pikemen to provide mutual support. An initial solution came from the Spanish in the early 16th century with their geometrical tercio formation. It involved a rectangular body of pikemen with harquebusiers at its corners. The Spanish ability to discipline and coordinate their infantry to fight in such an integrated formation rendered them virtually invincible in 16th-century field warfare, as demonstrated in the conquest of the Aztec and Inca Empires, the Battle of Pavia (1525), and the field actions of the Dutch Revolt. Nevertheless, such infantry innovations hardly gave the West a decisive advantage over Asian military armies. Europeans, after all, did not dare engage the Ottoman Turks in a large-scale battle for most of the 16th and 17th centuries.

By the late 17th and early 18th centuries, however, the strength of Asian field armies was in decline. Western European field armies were routinely employing innovations in military technology that gave them significant advantages. From a utilization perspective, this involved the drilling of troops to load and fire their firearms in precise sequences, as well as in choreographed maneuvers. Furthermore, this exercise occurred not only during the training phase but also continuously to maintain the discipline and morale of experienced troops. As initiated by Maurice of Nassau during the Dutch Revolt and developed by Gustavus Adolphus during the Thirty Years' War (1618–1648), such drill enabled infantry units to concentrate their fire in devastating volleys even under terrifying combat conditions. Although expensive in terms of time and the use of junior officers, the system of continuous drill routinely executed the transformation of society's dregs into disciplined soldiers, capable of functioning as interchangeable parts in a deadly social machine. In the late 17th century, the effectiveness of these soldiers was extended by their being armed with flintlock muskets and socket bayonets. The musket generated faster and more reliable firing rates than the harquebus, while the bayonet reduced the vulnerability of soldiers while they were loading.

The growing strength of Western field warfare in the 18th century also depended on artillery innovations. While the basic smoothbore-artillery design of the 15th century remained, a series of artillery reforms created both powerful and maneuverable field artillery systems. This began with Gustavus Adolphus's introduction of the three-pounder regimental artillery piece into the Swedish army during the 1620s. The trend accelerated during the mid-18th century with the artillery reforms of Austria and France that furnished the first heavy field guns that could be moved routinely in combat. Equally significant was the way such 18th-century artillery was used. Following the ballistics research conducted during the War of the Austrian Succession, the killing efficiency of Western field artillery improved significantly when directed by officers trained in Newtonian science.

Brett D. Steele

Text: Steele, Brett D. "Military Revolution in Early Modern Europe." In Volti, Rudi. The Facts On File Encyclopedia of Science, Technology, and Society. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 1999. Facts On File, Inc. Science Online. <www.fofweb.com>.