European Military Revolution

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When, where and who?
By Charles Singleton

The military revolution debate is an ongoing attempt by various historians to pinpoint a specific period in time when armed forces evolved into the forefathers of today’s modern armies, and arguably along with them the forebears of the modern state. A great deal of work has been done on this subject. Existing evidence has been continually re-interpreted, and a number of theories have been postulated, each with its own validity, yet none gives a definitive answer to the debate which is still ongoing.

The controversy of the military revolution in early modern Europe evolved after the publication of Michael Roberts’ Essays in Swedish History in 1967. In this publication, he argued that between 1560 and 1660 there were major changes in military affairs. In particular, he examined and held up as examples, the new tactics and organisation of the Dutch army in the Eighty Years War, and the Swedish army of Gustav Adolph in the Thirty Years War. He argued that the development of these armies required enormous central funding by the state which led to the era of absolutism in Western Europe. This theory was popular as it followed contemporary thinking and remained unchallenged until Geoffrey Parker introduced his theory which attempted to modify the Roberts argument. Parker argued the case of the Spanish army being receptive to new ideas and more flexible than previously given credit for. He also argued that major changes in artillery, siege warfare and improved, cheap gunpowder infantry weapons also had an effect. He pointed out the major changes in siege warfare due to improved gunpowder weapons and the emergence of new, superior fortifications, the ‘Trace Italienne’. Parker argued that the major growth in army sizes began much earlier than Roberts claimed. He also considered the impact of sea power, and the effect that these changes in Europe had on the wider world.

Clifford Rogers in 1993, argued for the military revolution of the Hundred Years War. He pointed towards the development of the foot soldier as the ‘Queen of the Battlefield’, and maintained that battles became more decisive. He also argued that there was no military revolution as such, but a series of revolutionary advances or a ‘punctuated equilibrium’. Michael Prestwich in 1996, moved the roots of the revolution back further to the late twelfth century and early thirteenth. Here, Edward I fielded steadily larger armies and was able to negotiate grand alliances. Also he was able to field armies all year round on the Welsh Marches, employed by contracts lasting six months to a year, or even longer.

Perhaps the most plausible theory which has gained the most ground is that of Jeremy Black shown in his 1991 publication, A Military Revolution? Military Change and European Society, 1550-1800. In his argument he attacked Michael Roberts’ claims of development prior to the 1660s. To Black, the biggest changes occurred after 1660. He argued that Swedish success at Breitenfeld was not due to their tactical innovations (if any)1 but to their numerical superiority2. He also argued that the other Western European powers employed similar tactics3. He pointed out that the universal hiring of foreign troops and prisoners of war led to the mutual cross-fertilisation of ideas.

Black also argued that the size of the armies was more important than the tactics. At Breitenfeld the Swedes and their allies were on the whole better equipped and better trained and well-motivated and numbered 42,000 against 35,000 half starved and poorly equipped and motivated Imperialists4. At Lutzen in 1632, the Swedish army, using new methods identified by Roberts, was unable to defeat the out-dated Imperialists (both armies were of roughly equal numbers). Victory, Black concluded, went to the larger army, especially if they were more experienced5. The supposed ‘market leaders’ of the military revolution also suffered more than their fair share of defeats. The Swedes were badly mauled at Lutzen in 1632, where they could only manage a draw, and were completely routed in 1634 at Nordlingen. The French inheritors of the Swedish tradition were to suffer repeated reversals until the end of the war in 1648.

Battles and campaigns were not conclusive with the possible exception of civil wars prior to Black’s revolution. The Swedes were able to defeat various opponents in the latter half of the Thirty Years War, as occasionally, did the French. Yet, theirs were only short-lived, short-term gains. The Eighty Years War, the Thirty Years War, and the French-Spanish War all ended in compromise.

For Black, the critical time of change was the last quarter of the 17th century. New weaponry and tactics which had evolved earlier started to be introduced on a large scale. The firelock musket was universal by 16956; it was lighter, had a higher rate of fire and fewer misfires. The introduction of the bayonet, firstly as the plug-type, then as the socket-type7, firstly helped the decline of the pike-man, thus placing more men in the firing-line and secondly enabled the infantry to be less intimidated into defensive measures against horse. The repulse of the French household horse at Fleures in 1690 by German infantry caused a sensation8. Both these new weapon systems, coupled with the introduction of shallower formations, increased unit flexibility and fire discipline9 and increased casualty rates tremendously, most caused by gunshot wounds, not hand-to-hand combat10. These developments, if not bringing decisiveness to wars, did so to battles: Neerwinden (1693) and Fleures (1690), were two of France’s greatest victories of the era, whilst Blenhiem (1704), and Ramillies (1706) were equally stunning victories for the pan-European ‘Grand Alliance’.

Large advances were made in naval warfare as the size and firepower of the leading fleets grew. Fleets became more flexible and capable of acting at longer ranges and for longer periods away from their home ports. The Dutch, English, and French fleets all underwent tremendous expansion in the period post-165011. Due to the growth of military technologies, and in particular, developments in naval warfare, the European powers began to expand and carve out empires. Countries, particularly in the east, began to succumb to the expanding Western European powers. Austria and Russia were able to make gains at the expense of Turkey and Poland, two countries whose own armies had evolved little since the late 1500s. Both France and England were able to establish commercial empires and concerns in North America and in particular, India, to the detriment of states whose ‘hosts’ had evolved even more slowly.

Parker argued that the increase in the size of armies developed in the early part of the 17th century12 was important. Here, Black advised caution, citing the unreliability of sources and the problems of assessing army size (most units in this era were raised only for the short term). However, Black was able to argue that armies were bigger in the mid-18th century than in the early to mid-17th century, arguing in the case of Austria that expansion and the defence of newly conquered territories was only possible with larger field armies13. Again, he argued that France was not able to develop into a major European power until the rapid growth of her forces.

Perhaps the area of greatest disagreement was that of absolutism. Roberts argued that as the new tactics of the early 17th century required new armies, new armies required new forms of support from the state. This support was far beyond the resources of any one noble or city, and had to be generated centrally by the sovereign. This form of capital raising coupled with a standing army loyal to the crown gave rise to the period of absolute monarchies and government. Jeremy Black argued that it is possible to reverse the Roberts theory. He saw that the stability of the latter half of the century made the advances in military theory and practice possible14.

The best example of Black’s theory in practice was that of the evolution of the French army of Louis XIV, which developed from a country militia army in the 1660s to the bastion of a world super-power in the late 1680s. Louis’ reign as the true ruler of France started in 1661. He used his powers to create an autocratic and centralised state. It would, however, take time and organisation. He summed up his feelings on the condition of the country as ‘disorder reigned everywhere’15. The location of France made her integral to all European machinations, and Louis had clearly defined ideas of the territorial borders and the political role of the new France in Europe. To achieve this, he needed a ‘new model’ large and efficient army. A centralised command was created in Paris, with a civil administrative structure to support the army. The Maquis de Louvois became the first civilian minister for war. The appointment of Jean de Martinet as Inspector-General of the infantry not only ensured discipline and rigorous drill and training, but also the stamping out of corrupt practices, such as ‘dead man’s pay’. Louvois and the King drafted numerous new regulations and orders defining the roles of officers and men. A four year term of service was introduced, as were recruitment standards in order to make an army career look more attractive. The new recruit had to be under forty, physically fit, and a bachelor or widower of good character16. In 1670 uniforms and pay were standardised throughout the army. Support services such as field hospitals were established and military hospitals were also introduced, such as ‘Les Invalides’ founded in 1674. Great changes were introduced in the officer corps. Training was stepped up, and the reading of the latest training manuals encouraged17. From 1661, commissions, which had been available for purchase, were obtainable solely through merit and ability. Thus, while encouraging underprivileged officers with ability to advance to higher positions, it also led to the alienation of the nobility, who saw leadership of the army as their traditional role. This led to compromise; positions such as Colonel were kept open for the aristocrat, whilst key positions such as Major, Lieutenant-colonel and Brigadier could not be purchased, but attained solely by promotion.

As the army developed, so did its manpower, giving further credence to Black’s theory. In 1661, the army could field perhaps 70,000 men. In 1672 the establishment was 176,000. In 1694, towards the end of the War of the Grand Alliance, it had grown to 450,00018. Even during the years of peace, it still grew. In comparison, the Austrian army, in 1705, fielded 100,000, and the English army, in 1710, had an establishment of 75,000. Perhaps the most enduring of the French reforms led to the rise of the Seigneur de Vauban, possibly the most famous military engineer in history. Between 1678 and 1698, 33 new fortresses were established and many more improved19. He systematised siege-craft, introducing new concepts in the prosecution of sieges and in artillery. Whereas Parker argued the dominance of the fortress in early 16th century thinking, Black was able to illustrate how later military thinkers expanded on these ideas, on the one hand to improve the fortresses and on the other, neutralising them. Vauban, in his career, prosecuted 53 successful sieges. The Dutch were also to develop new ideas in fortress construction and siege-craft, the results of which influenced deeply the strategies of Marlborough and Villars during their campaigns in Spanish Flanders.

The French army during the period 1661 to 1715, entered into three major conflicts. In the War of Devolution (1667 to 1668) the new army was generally successful, as it was in the initial stages of both the War of the League of Augsberg (1689-98 also known as the War of the Grand Alliance) and the War of the Spanish Succession (1702 to 1715). However, in both cases, despite early gains, the wars ground to a halt, and resulted in stalemate. Despite crushing losses, such as Blenheim (1704) and Ramilles (1706), the army was able to survive. This, coupled with the fact that the French army brought the rest of the European armies to a standstill, was largely thanks to the professional infrastructure which supported the French army.

Roberts, Parker and Black, perhaps the main protagonists of the military revolution debate, all concentrated on roughly the same period, 1490 to 1700. They also offered similar explanations (with the exception of absolutism): increased training, drill, the growth in the size of armies, and the development of siege-craft. It was only within a specific time-scale, within this 200 year period, that their ideas, for the main, differ. It is arguably Black, however, who put the most convincing argument forward. Surely the events and actions and the end of any chronological era improve on those which have gone before? Armies were able to develop as states became more stabilised (particularly after the trauma of the Thirty Years War). An increase in stability led to improved financing, and allowed them to take on emerging technologies, such as the flint-lock musket, and the new ideas such as those of Louvois and Vauban. As a result, these armies expanded to create commercial and territorial empires. They were able to recover from defeats more rapidly thanks to improved support systems. Black re-categorised the armies of the early modern era, not as the slow, over-cautious timid forces of the Age of Enlightenment, but as the dynamic, evolving, experimental fore-fathers of possibly the greatest military revolution; that of the citizen soldier.


1 - Brzezinski, Richard (1993) The Army of Gustavus Adolphus Vol. 2 London, Osprey Publishing pp34-35
2 - Black, Jeremy (1991) A Military Revolution? Military Change and European Society 1550-1800, London, Macmillan pp12
3 - Weigley, Russell F. (1991) The Age of Battles, Indiana, Indiana University Press pp22
4 - Black, pp12
5 - ibid pp12
6 - Grant, Charles S. (1986) From Pike to Shot 1685-1720, London, Wargames Research Group pp10
7 - ibid pp85
8 - ibid pp79
9 - Barthrop, Michael (1980) Marlborough’s Army 1702-11, London, Osprey Publishing pp13
10 - Black, pp22
11 - ibid pp32
12 - Parker, Geoffrey (1988) The Military Revolution, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press pp205
13 - Black, pp7, 28
14 - ibid pp67
15 - Chartrand, Rene (1983) Louis XIV’s Army, London, Osprey Publishing pp6
16 - ibid pp11
17 - ibid pp9
18 - ibid pp11-12
19 - Black, pp30