Article: Extract from War: How War became Global, Dr Robert Johnson University of Oxford

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The Military Revolution Debate: The ‘gunpowder revolution’ changed warfare

The historian Geoffrey Parker described the period between the fifteenth and seventeenth century as a ‘military revolution’, primarily because of the far-reaching changes in technology and the organisation of armies in Europe. Crossbows and longbows had given way to handguns, and mechanically operated catapults like the trebuchet had been replaced by cannons. In sieges, cannons had forced radical changes in fortress architecture: towers and thick stone walls were replaced by lower, earth filled bastions and smaller, outlying forts. On the battlefield, massed volleys from musketeers, or a salvo of cannon balls, could decimate the packed formations of an opponent, pierce armour and crush limbs.

Gunpowder weapons had their own drawbacks

However, this ‘gunpowder revolution’ in weaponry was not a smooth development, and there were some key problems. Handguns, arquebuses and later matchlock muskets, were inaccurate and took time to load. This meant that they were vulnerable to attack and they had to be protected by infantrymen with pikes (a long ‘lance’ tipped with a spike which was effective in keeping cavalry at bay). Cannons were not easy to manoeuvre, and, like all gunpowder weapons, they could be rendered useless by a sudden downpour of rain, unless the crews could keep their powder dry. Gunpowder also produced thick smoke, which, on windless days, could obscure the field of view to a few yards. It was necessary to clothe troops in bright uniforms to assist in identification, and to carry large, highly visible standards (or ‘colours’) as rallying points in the disorientating smoke filled zone of battle.

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There had also been radical changes in organisation

The Dutch had pioneered the greater professionalism of their officer corps and imposed a strict discipline on their troops in the 1590s. This meant that leaders studied and applied the lessons of battlefield success. Their troops rehearsed getting into formation, moving at speed and working alongside different arms (cavalry, artillery and infantry). By the seventeenth century, all European states had ‘standing armies’ of full time, paid and trained troops. In addition, many European states still retained irregular and mercenary forces; troops hired to fight on a temporary basis and often from peoples they dominated. For example, Cossacks had been recruited by the Russian Tsars in the seventeenth century, whilst Swiss soldiers had traditionally served in a voluntary manner in a number of armies across Europe from the 1400s.

Linear formations emerged in the seventeenth century to maximise friepower

The introduction of prefabricated cartridges by the Swedes greatly increased the rate of fire of musketeers in the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). This meant that the numbers of supporting pikemen could be reduced and musketeers deployed in lines three deep (rather than in deep blocks). In addition, Gustavus Adolphus (the King of Sweden as well as the field commander) trained the cavalry to charge knee to knee in three ranks and fight hand to hand, abandoning the traditional caracole (of troopers advancing to discharge pistols and retiring). Moreover the cavalry were given specific roles of attacking flanks, the rear areas, to carry out a pursuit, or ride down enemy skirmishers. The Swedish artillery was standardised in calibre and charges. Guns were subdivided into categories and the lightest guns were deployed alongside the infantry. Twenty years of battlefield experience had wrought these changes which culminated in the victory at Breitenfeld (17th September 1631). After the Thirty Years War, wheel lock muskets and bayonets were introduced, and gradually pikemen were phased out. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, flintlock muskets were in use by the British army. In 1702, the Duke of Marlborough won a significant victory against the French (who had persisted with matchlocks) at Blenheim. Despite the success of linear formations, the Russians under Peter the Great relied on sheer weight of numbers to defeat the Swedes in the Great Northern War (1700-1721).

Modernity: The citizen army of America and the Revolution influenced Europe

In 1775, American colonists engaged regular British forces at Lexington at the outbreak of the American Revolution. Unable to stand against the British redcoats, the Americans conducted a withdrawal giving harassing fire when any opportunity presented itself. At Bunkers’ Hill (17th June 1775), by contrast, the colonists were able to repulse two British attacks by sheer weight of fire from behind entrenchments. When they ran out of ammunition, a third assault carried the position. Throughout the war that followed, the British and the Americans fought each other to a standstill. The British troops were highly disciplined and well trained. The British had already adopted skirmishers of hand picked marksmen from their experience of fighting Indians in the wooded countryside of the Seven Years War, but ‘light infantry companies’ began to make their appearance across the army. The Americans were most effective in guerrilla fighting and hit and run raids, but their command centres were local and able to respond more quickly than the British (whose headquarters were in London). However, as mercenary forces from Europe joined the Americans against the British, the American army adopted more formal tactics and training. When the French expeditionary force and the French irregulars returned to France, they took with the revolutionary ideas they had seen in action in America.

The use of firepower was a hallmark of ‘modern’ warfare

Infantry fought in linear formations to maximise the effect of their muskets, but there was an option of charging forward to close with the enemy in hand to hand fighting with a bayonet. Cavalry made use of this shock effect, combining their speed and mobility with the advantage of height to cut down with sabre or thrust with sword point. Given that muskets and cannons still took time to load, and that formations moved slowly (a speed of 110 paces to the minute was not uncommon), the decision to use ‘cold steel’ could be practical as well as psychological. Artillery inflicted considerable losses too. At longer range, artillery fired metal ‘shot’, or cannon balls, aiming to pitch them just in front of enemy infantry and cavalry formations. The balls would bounce, jump and ricochet through ranks and files, often killing several men at once. At close range, artillery would fire chain shot (two balls connected by a chain that scythed through ranks) or canister (a cylinder filled with small balls that burst on leaving the muzzle of the cannon, spraying out like a shotgun).

Resolving the debate

Professor Jeremy Black, in War and the World, reminds us that too often there is a narrow focus in the study of warfare. Usually this takes the form of analyses of European modes of warfare and decisive battles, leaving out the civil conflicts such as the 1848 revolutions. Moreover, since Geoffrey Parker argued that there had been a ‘gunpowder revolution’ in the early modern period (a point, incidentally, which Black disputes, arguing that the ‘revolution came as late as the eighteenth century’), many historians have focussed on the technological changes at the expense of the continuities. Military history often suffers from a ‘whig view’ of the past (where human society makes continual improvement and progress), when it is evident from spectacular setbacks, or colonial wars, that tactics and doctrine did not always ‘advance’, especially outside of Europe. This calls into the question the idea that wars were ‘modernised’. A section on Chinese and African modes of warfare is included in this book to illustrate this.

Towards an accurate study of war

David Chandler offered a four-part solution to the problem of an accurate military history. One, that it was a subject that required a study in depth in order to see the various factors that influenced a particular outcome. Two, it should be studied from the perspective of every level of command, from the general to the private soldier, in order to obtain a grasp of ‘the hidden factors that shaped strategic decisions [down] to the experience of the battlefield’. Three, it is a subject that must be studied across the ages in order to appreciate the changes and continuities that would be obscured by too narrow a view. Four, an awareness of the historical context is vital, such as the limits imposed by international relations and resources, or the general political, social and economic background to a particular conflict.


However, whilst military history is subject to various limitations, it is no more a victim than other aspects of history. Frequently the study of history raises more questions than answers. Moreover, historians often disagree about the reasons for change in warfare, or the outcomes of some historical events, but this debate exposes an aspect of history to deeper scrutiny, fresh perspectives, and, through dialogue, a more accurate understanding of the past. Military history is important and relevant. It does not necessarily ‘teach lessons’ (the trick, even if it does, is to know which ones it is teaching) or help in the construction of some over-arching universal theory. It does not make men more clever, but it does, perhaps, make them wise forever.

Terms and Definitions
The definition of war

In warfare, certain terms are helpful in defining the processes involved. War itself is a prolonged conflict between rival political groups by force of arms, thereby including insurrection and civil war, but excluding riots, or individual acts of terrorism or violence. Grand strategy is the co-ordination of all the resources of a nation, or group of nations towards a common political objective. Strategy is the art of deploying military means (troops and supplies) to fulfil a particular policy. Tactics are the dispositions, techniques and control of military forces in actual combat. Campaigns are the periods of military activity, perhaps a series of manoeuvres and battles that take place as each side tries to fulfil its strategy.

Certain ‘principles of war’ can identified

No reliable analysis of warfare can be based solely on one battle, and the outcomes of wars, like their causes, are the result of manifold factors. However, there are certain themes which help identify success, and which, to a lesser or greater extent, played their part in all wars: surprise, concentration of effort (known as the Schwerpunkt), co-operation of all arms, control, simplicity, speed of action and the initiative. Added to these principles were the additional factors of training, discipline, unit cohesion, technology, leadership, the use of reserves at the critical moment, and sound logistics.

The causes of war require separate study

This book is not so much about the causes of war and the impact of war on society as the changes in warfare itself. However, no account of warfare can completely ignore the causes of war since they influence strategy. David Chandler, in reference to the deadlock of the First World War, pointed not to the devastating technology of artillery and machine guns, but the willingness of the participants to engage in total war. More recently, Jeremy Black has argued that the willingness to resort to war, the inherent ‘bellicosity’ of states to fulfil objectives by force of arms, is the main cause of war. Von Clausewitz (1780-1831), the military theorist, famously remarked that ‘war is nothing but a continuation of politics with the admixture of other means’ whilst a pacifist slogan in 1936 ran simply ‘war will cease when men refuse to fight’. Detailed histories are required, however, if the outbreak of particular wars are to be understood. Wars, like other events in history, are not the result of some overarching theory or doctrine, but the product of unique historical forces. Nevertheless, some truths are irrefutable. War is a persistent human activity. Failure to prepare for conflict invites defeat and subjugation. This reminds us of the warning, in an adapted form, given by Vegetius (c.4th century AD): ‘Si vis pacem, para bellum’ (‘if you want peace, prepare for war’).


To make the comparative study of different periods easier, certain themes can be identified under the headings below. Throughout the book, these headings will be used to help you keep track of the changes and continuities in warfare, and to assess which factors were paramount in producing the outcomes of certain wars. They are leadership, quality of troops, technology, planning and preparation, strategy, tactics, alliances and domestic factors (organisation of the state for war – such as mobilisation plans – media and public opinion, civil-military relations and industrial development).

Dr Rob Johnson Oxford University

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