Book Summary: “A History of Warfare” by John Keegan

Title: A History of Warfare
Author: John Keegan
Scope: 4 stars
Readability: 4 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
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Topic of Book

Keegan traces the history of warfare from prehistory until modern times. Keegan argues that culture was the prime determinant in how a society wages war.

If you would like to learn more about how warfare has shaped human history, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

Important Quotes from Book

Good historian though he was, Clausewitz allowed the two institutions – state and regiment – that circumscribed his own perception of the world to dominate his thinking so narrowly that he denied himself the room to observe how different war might be in societies where both state and regiment were alien concepts.

[The Samurai] is evidence that political logic need not dominate warmaking, that, on the contrary, cultural forms, when they find strong champions, may prevail against the most powerfully besetting temptations to choose technical expedients as a means to victory, particularly when the price of victory is that of overturning ancient and cherished values.

Military historians now recognise that the banks of the Oxus are to warfare what Westminster is to parliamentary democracy or the Bastille to revolutions. On or near the banks of the Oxus – the river that separates Central Asia from Persia and the Middle East – man learned to tame the horse, to harness it for driving, and eventually to ride it under a saddle. It was from the Oxus that conquerors rode forth to found ‘chariot empires’ in China, India and Europe. It was on the Oxus that the cavalry revolution, one of the two indisputable revolutions in warmaking, took place. It was across the Oxus that successive waves of Central Asian conquerors and despoilers – Huns, Avars, Magyars, Turks, Mongols – broke into the Western world.

In earlier times European society had been heavily suffused by warrior values and practices; then, from the seventeenth century, through a sustained policy of depriving the population of firearms, destroying the castles of the provincial grandees, appropriating their sons as regular officers, creating specialist corps of artillerists officered from the non-warrior classes and monopolising the production of battlefield· weapons in state arsenals, the sort of governments of which Clausewitz was a servant effectively demilitarized European society everywhere west of the Oder and Drava rivers, that is to say from Berlin and Vienna to the Atlantic.

The most important limitations on warmaking, however, have always lain beyond the will or power of man to command. They belong within the realm of what the Soviet General Staff used to call ‘permanently operating factors’, and such factors weather, climate., seasons, terrain, vegetation – always affect, often inhibit and sometimes altogether prohibit the operations of war. Other factors, loosely categorised as ‘contingent’ and  including difficulties of supply, provisioning, quartering and equipment, have strictly – limited the scope, intensity, and duration of warmaking in many periods of human history.

Seventy per cent of the globe’s surface is covered by water, most of it open sea, and most large sea battles have taken place in but a fraction of that area.

Equally, most of the globe’s dry land has no military history.

 In all, about seventy per cent of the world’s 60 million square miles of dry land is either too high, too cold or too waterless for the conduct of military operations. Large rivers, highland barriers, dense forests form ‘natural frontiers’ with which, over time, political boundaries tend to coincide; the gaps between them are avenues along which armies on the march are drawn. Once through such gaps, however, armies rarely find themselves free to manoeuvre at will, even if no apparent obstacles stand in their way. A more subtle geography comes into play, reinforced by climate and the season, and adapted by the roadmaker and bridge-builder, even if not by the fortification engineer.

Organised and intensive warfare has been carried on over extended periods of time along an irregular but continuous band of the world’s surface lying between the tenth-and fifty-fifth degrees of latitude in the northern “‘hemisphere, and stretching from the Mississippi valley in North America to the Philippines and their outliers in the western Pacific, or from 90 degrees West of Greenwich to 135 degrees East. The Times Atlas of the World classifies vegetation into sixteen categories, including (before land-clearing for agriculture). Mixed Forest, Broadleaf Forest, Mediterranean Scrub and Dry Tropical Forest. If a line is drawn to enclose those four vegetation zones in the northern hemisphere and the land and sea routes between them, one may quickly see that almost all of history’s battles have been fought within the space the line encloses and very few outside. If the battle locations are dated by month, a seasonal concentration will superimpose itself, varying from place to place with highs and lows of temperature and rainfall, and dates of harvesting.

We should note that plough people of the same language and religion rarely fight each other on a major scale.. On the other hand, borders between ploughed and unploughed land, throughout the temperate zone, are very frequently defined by long and expensive works of fortification:

These fortified boundaries suggest a fundamental tension. between the haves of ploughed land and the have-nots of soils too thin; cold or dry to be broken for cultivation. To recognise that tension is not to fall into the false perception that the motive underlying major warmaking is mere expropriation.

The tide of war tends to flow one way – from poor lands to rich, and very rarely in the opposite direction. That is not simply because poor lands offer little worth fighting over; it is also because fighting in poor lands is difficult, sometimes impossible. Poor people from what William McNeill calls ‘food-deficit areas’ – desert, steppe, forest, mountains – will fight among themselves, and their fierce military skills have been valued and purchased by the rich for as long as we have records of organised warmaking.

The warfare of poor peoples, nevertheless, was limited in scope and intensity by their very poverty. It was only when they broke into the rich lands that they were able to accumulate the stocks of provender which made deeper penetration, and eventual conquest, a possibility. Hence the wealth and labour expended by cultivators in fortifying their borders, to exclude the predators before they could make serious trouble.

What is apparent is that the opponents and the proponents of the thesis that man is naturally aggressive’ both pitch their case too strong. Opponents fly in the face of common sense. Observation demonstrates that animals kill members of other species and also fight among themselves; the males of some species fight to the death. It is necessary to deny all genetic connection between man and the rest of the animal world – a position now held only by strict Creationists – in order to discount the possibility that aggression may be part of man’s genetic inheritance. Proponents also go too far, though for different reasons. One is that they tend to draw the boundaries of aggressiveness too wide. Thus a major group of classifiers, who uncontroversially differentiate between instrumental or specific aggression.

True, we now know that fear and rage have a neural seat in the lower part of the brain, that it is stimulated by the identification of threat in the higher part of the brain, that the two neural areas communicate through chemical and hormonal links and that certain genetic inheritances predispose towards greater or lesser violent response. What science cannot predict is when any individual will display violence. What, finally, science does not explain is why groups of individuals combine to fight others.

The men of the Old Stone Age, in any case, had not yet invented the bow. At the beginning of the New Stone Age, however, some 10,000 years ago, there occurred ‘a revolution in weapons technology … four staggeringly powerful new weapons: make their appearance . . . the bow, the sling, the dagger … and the mace’. The last three were refinements of weapons already in existence: the mace derived from the club, the dagger from the spear point and the sling from the bolas, the last a pair of stones covered with leather and joined by a thong, thrown to entangle the legs of deer or bison which had been herded into a killing-place. The atatl, or spear-throwing lever, was probably also an indirect precursor of the sling, since it worked by the same principle. The bow, however, was a real departure. Itt may be seen as the first machine, since it employed moving parts and translated muscular into mechanical energy.

Even in its simple form, however, the bow transformed the relationship of man with the animal world. He no longer had to close to arm’s length to dispatch his prey, pitting at the last moment flesh against flesh, life against life. Henceforth he could kill at a distance.

Was man the archer also man the first warrior?

They were trembling on the brink of pastoralism and agriculture, the two activities which transform man’s relationship with his habitat. Hunters and gatherers may have ‘territory’; pastoralists have grazing and watering-places; agriculturalists have land. Once man invests expectations of a regular return on his seasonal efforts in a particular place – lambing, herding, planting, reaping – he rapidly develops the sense of rights and ownership. Toward those who trespass on the places where he· invests his time and effort he must equally rapidly develop the hostility of the user and occupier for the usurper and interloper. Fixed expectations make for fixed responses. Pastoralism, and agriculture even more so, make for war.  

Superior skill at arms should have rested with the hunters. ‘We may speculate’, thinks 1.M. Roberts, ‘that the dim roots of the notion of aristocracy are to be sought in the successes (which must have been frequent) of hunter-gatherers, representatives of an older social order, in exploiting the vulnerability of the settlers, tied to their areas of cultivation.’ Certainly it is a universal phenomenon that rights of hunting are always arrogated by those who have authority over the tillers of the soil, that aristocrats who monopolise such rights also enact brutal penalties against those who violate them, and that the overthrow of aristocratic hunting-rights has often been a chief demand of revolutionaries.

The Sumerians, like the Aztecs, achieved civilisation within the constraints of a technology of stone. It is, however, not their tools – and in any case they early became metallurgists but their powers of organisation that laid the basis for their warmaking, as both defenders and aggressors.

 The one thing it does not reveal, at least from the earliest stages of the Sumerian cities’ rise to statehood, is any evidence of warmaking. None of the thirteen cities known to have existed at the beginning of the third millennium, including Ur, Uruk and Kish, then had walls. Sumeria at that stage seems to have had a civilisation spared domestic strife by the awesome authority of its priest-kings, inter-city war perhaps by the absence of any clash of interests, and external aggression by the harshness of the landscape that surrounded the fruitful valley and by the lack of any means of mobility – neither the camel nor the horse had yet been domesticated – available to potential interlopers from the western desert or the eastern steppe.

 Until the founding of the regular army under the New Kingdom (1540-1070 BC), Egyptian warfare remained strangely old-fashioned. Its weapons were ‘clubs and flint spears even in the Middle Kingdom’, during the internal wars over succession to kingship. In that period (1991-1785 BC) bronze weapons were widely in use elsewhere, and the Egyptians had themselves been making first copper and then bronze weapons for several hundred years. The reason for the Egyptians’ tendency to cling to a superseded technology is hard to find.

The possibility of a parallel with the Aztecs flower battle is there to see, and is supported by the Egyptians’ persistence in a choice of weapons – mace, short spear, simple bow – which eventually, after nearly 1500 years of continuous pharaonic rule, achieved an almost antiquarian oddity. . .

The Egyptians maintained a stable and almost unvarying way of life, based on the three seasons of inundation, growing and drought, regulated by the rule of a king who took a major place among their 2000 gods, and dedicated, in the time and with the labour that could be spared from irrigation and cultivation, to raising and furnishing the palace, temple and tomb architecture, still unsurpassed in monumentality, that the necessities of passage to the afterlife as they conceived it, required… warfare must have been relegated to a lowly and unimportant role.

Between 3100 BC and 2300 BC as a result: warfare increasingly dominated Sumerian life, leading to the supplanting of priest-kings by war leaders, military specialisation the accelerated development of a weapons metallurgy and, probably, the intensification of combat to the point where we can begin to speak of it as ‘battle’.

[After the invention of Bronze] the empire had then become an established fact, and was indeed the most important fact in the developing life of the Middle East. Its wealth was a magnet to jealous predators living beyond the magic circle…The outcome was that ‘by about 2000 BC.  Mesopotamia had come to be ringed around by a series of satellite civilisations, or proto-civilisations’ which, as they acquired the military means, supplied the waves of conquerors – Gutians, Hurrians, Kassites – who conquered part or all of the great plain during the next thousand years.

Above all, they had learned to improve the physique of domesticated horses – domestication had begun on the steppe during the fourth millennium – by care and selective breeding. Such horses, when used to pull a greatly improved war cart, which had shed two of its four original wheels to become the chariot, were truly to revolutionise warmaking, above all by putting the rich and stable but sedentary valley civilisations at risk from the predators who hovered in the horse-breeding lands beyond. After the end of the second millennium BC, such predatory charioteers disrupted the course of civilisation in Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Indus Valley, and wherever else it had put down roots.


Three types of fortifications:

  1. Refuge – temporary sanctuary during attack.
  2. Stronghold – center that dominates its surroundings
  3. Strategic defenses – long defense along edges of large states/empires

To these three defensive features – walls, moat, tower – fortification engineers were to add little in the 8000 years between the building of Jericho and the introduction of gunpowder.

By the end of the first millennium fortifications pimpled the face of the temperate zones.

The general principle held, however, that a multiplicity of strongholds indicated a weakness or absence of central authority.

What is certain is that the growth of central authority was almost everywhere and at all times marked by the construction of strategic defences.

 All the works of siegecraft available to commanders before the invention of gunpowder were, therefore, devised between 2400 and 397 BC. None, except starvation, offered a certain, or even very effective, means of bringing a fortification to surrender. A besieger’s best hope of a quick result, according to the classical strategist Polybius, lay in exploiting the defenders’ complacency or achieving surprise. Treachery was another device… Those methods apart, an attacker might sit for months outside the walls, unless he could find a weak spot or create one himself.

In general, the advantage in siege warfare before gunpowder always lay with the defender, as long as he took the precaution of laying in supplies, and to such an extent that it was a convention of siege warfare in the medieval West for the parties to agree on a time limit, at the expiry of which, if the siege had not been raised by a relieving force, those inside the walls were allowed to march out without penalty. Since the attackers might themselves run out of food, or even more probably succumb to disease in their unhealthy encampments, such an agreement was a sensible option for any garrison.

 The adoption of the war chariot and the imposition of the power of war charioteers throughout the centres of Eurasian civilisation in the space of some 300 years is one of the most extraordinary episodes in world history. How did it come about? It depended on many developments – in metallurgy, woodworking, tanning and leatherworking, and the use of glues, bone and sinew – but above all on the domestication and improvement in physique of the wild horse.

It was flock management, as much as slaughter and butchery, which made the pastoralists so cold-bloodedly adept at confronting the sedentary agriculturalists of the civilised lands in battle… They knew how to break a flock up into manageable sections, how to cut off a line of retreat by circling to a flank, how to compress scattered beasts into a compact mass, how to isolate flock-leaders, how to dominate superior numbers by. threat and menace, how to kill the chosen few while leaving the mass inert and subject to control.

The simple accoutrements belonging to a chariot or mounted archer did not vary for more than 3000 years. The essentials were the bow itself, the arrow and the thumb ring, which protected his skin from flaying at the moment of the arrow’s release; important accessories were the quiver and the bow case, which shielded weapons not in use from variations in temperature and humidity (both degraded the weapon’s range and accuracy).

Toward the middle of the second millennium BC, the peoples who had learnt the skills of making and using chariots and composite bows discovered – by what means we cannot surmise – that the defenders of the settled lands could not stand against the aggressive methods they had initially devised to oppose the predators that attacked their flocks.

It is this transformation of the role of kings in the civilised world that we must regard as the most significant, lasting and baleful effect of warrior domination of the ancient theocratic states. The Egyptians of the Old and Middle Kingdoms had scarcely been warriors at all; even Sargon’s standing army was a bumbling and ineffective organisation by comparison with its Assyrian successor. To the Assyrians and Egyptians the chariot peoples taught both the techniques and ethos of imperial warmaking, and each within its own orbit became an imperial power… Thus the legacy of the chariot was the warmaking state. The chariot itself was to be the nucleus of the campaigning army.

At the height of its powers, say in the eighth century BC, the Assyrian army revealed features on which many of those of successor armies in other empires were to be modelled; some of them have come down to our own day. Foremost among them were its logistic arrangements: supply depots, transport columns, bridging-trains. The Assyrian was the first true long-range army, able to campaign as far as 300 miles from base and to move at speeds of advance that would not be exceeded until the coming of the internal combustion engine.

 Assyria appears to have been the first power to recruit troops without ethnic discrimination. Ruthless in its population policy-it resettled dissidents far from their homelands in order to assure internal security, as the Ottomans and Stalin were later to do – it was at the same time quite prepared to integrate into the army both subject peoples and prisoners of war, as long as it was sure it could count on their loyalty. Language and a common religion were the adhesives.

 By the eighth century BC, however, selective breeding had produced a horse that Assyrians could ride from the forward seat, with their weight over the shoulders, and a sufficient mutuality had developed between steed and rider for the man to use a bow while in motion. Mutuality, or perhaps horsemanship, was not so far advanced, all the same, that riders were ready to release the reins.

The first Scythians who made their raid into Mesopotamia at the end of the seventh century BC were harbingers of what was to be a repetitive cycle of raiding, despoliation, slave-taking, killing and, sometimes, conquest that was to afflict the outer edge of civilisation – in the Middle East, in India, in China and in Europe for 2000 years.

Nevertheless, the nomads had a weakness: they liked the nomadic way of life and despised the weary Cultivator, bound to his furrows and his plough-ox. What the nomads wanted was the best of both worlds: the comfort and luxury that settled ways yielded but also the freedom of the horseman’s life, of the tented camp, of the hunt and of the seasonal shift of quarters.

Nature seems to impose limits on the depth of penetration that nomads can make into settled land. Nomadic demand on irrigated land for grazing rapidly disrupts the system and returns it to a state where it will support neither beast nor man; if cleared from forest, the land reverts to woodland when the ploughing population is dispersed… Nomadic expansion could be consolidated, therefore, only in the borderlands between steppe and agriculture but such lands support only small populations. In the Far East, where the conquering nomads were halfway to being Chinese already, they were easily assimilated, even if as a ruling class. In the west, where religion and civilised custom imposed a much sharper differentiation between them and the agriculturalists, the borderlands became a permanent battleground, where use of the soil had to be sustained by force of arms.

The Arabs transfused warfare with a new force altogether, the force of an idea.

What made the Arab victories all the more astonishing was the relatively poor quality of their armies. The Arabs, despite centuries of desert feuding, had no real experience of intensive warfare; they were indeed ‘primitive warriors’ whose preferred form of operations was the raid. Nor does their generalship seem to have been particularly cunning. They certainly enjoyed no advantage in equipment or military technique.

The caliph al-Mu’tasim (833-42) is regarded as the founder of the Muslim military slave system.

The mistake had been made, however, of recruiting as slave soldiers a strain of proud, hardy, highly intelligent but alien warriors who eventually saw no reason to persist in subservience, who consequently took the means at hand to make themselves masters of the empire, and who, moreover, had the wit to devise a formula which preserved the dignity of the caliphate but delivered its substance to themselves.

The horse-riding peoples, like the charioteers before them, brought to warmaking the electric concept of campaigning over long distances and, when campaigning resolved itself into battle, of manoeuvering on the battlefield at speed – at least five times the speed of men on foot. As protectors of their flocks and herds against predators, they also preserved the spirit of the hunter, lost to agriculturalists except of the lordly class.

The European armies of the age of imperialism owed one pillar of their efficiency to a principle established off the steppe: that of bureaucratic organisation, founded in Sumer and Assyria, translated through Persia to Macedon, Rome and Byzantium, and artificially revived from classical sources at the Renaissance. They owed another, that of commitment to the pitched battle, to the Greeks. All the others – long-range campaigning, high-speed manoeuvre on the battlefield, effective missile technology, the application of the wheel to warfare and, above all, mutuality between horse and warrior – had their origins on. the steppe and its borderlands. We may even ascribe to the later Turks and Mongols credit for taking from Islam that creed’s revolutionary contribution to warmaking – its detachment from considerations of family, race, territory or particular political forms – and investing it with the force of an idea: that war could be an autonomous activity and the warrior’s life a culture in itself

Our survey of military history so far reveals six main forms that military organisation may take: warrior, mercenary, slave, regular, conscript and militia.

Feudalism in whatever form was therefore a blind alley in the move away from warriordom. A much more effective system was the regular. It first appeared, surprisingly early, in Sumer and was brought to a scarcely improvable form by the Assyrians… Its core, however, was the royal bodyguard, in which the origins of regular service may lie. The army of Sumer was probably first a royal bodyguard.

Man needed some other resource with which to attack the face of earth in the temperate, forested zones but also to contest possession of the lands already settled with the rich and strong minorities which had monopolised the expensive technology of warmaking in the Bronze Age.

Iron supplied the need.  previously such materials had been the perquisite of the few because of their cost and rarity, was bound to change social relationship. Not only sharp weapons but tools also became available to men who had laboured before with stone and wood to clear forests and break the surface of the soil. Iron tools not merely allowed but encouraged man to tackle soils that previously resisted him and in so doing to colonise regions distant from existing areas of settlement, to exploit more intensively those already brought into use or simply to colonise where the charioteers had conquered before them.

The larger legacy of the [Marathon] campaign of 480-79 BC,  however, was not military but naval. It elevated the power of fleets to a level equal to that held by armies in states that bordered an inland sea, and so set the style for a new method of warmaking, truly strategic in character, that dominated the struggle for position in the eastern Mediterranean for the rest of the century; its principles eventually passed into the lore of all maritime peoples.

The instrument of Greek, chiefly Athenian, naval strategy was the oared fighting-ship, probably developed by the Phoenicians of the Syrian Coast.

 The Roman army had by now moved far in organisation from the hoplite model on which it was based. During their wars with the Gauls, who fought in a loose but dynamic open order, the Roman commanders had found that the tight ranks of the phalanx put their troops at a disadvantage. They had therefore introduced a system which allowed subsections, ‘maniples’ or handfuls, to manoeuvre on the battlefield and had progressively abandoned the thrusting spear.

 As important for the long-term efficiency of the Roman army as this change in equipment and tactics was the introduction of a new basis of service. Though by their frequent hiring of mercenaries the Greek city states had eventually compromised the principle that the citizen supported himself in the field, and while some were even driven to equip and pay their servicemen at public expense – by 440 Athens was paying its galley crews and overseas garrisons – the duty of the hoplite to campaign at his own expense remained an ideal. By the fourth century Rome had abandoned it, and was paying the legionaries a daily stipend. This development marked the most important divergence of the Roman from the Greek military system. Rome’s smallholders, at the dictate of an increasingly dominant political class, ceased to be attached to and supported by their land and became a recruiting pool for a professional army which campaigned, year after year, farther and farther from home, as the Roman republic extended to form an empire.46

 What most distinguished the warfare of the Romans from that of their contemporaries and neighbours was not its motivation – in that respect it was the headstrong and individualistic Greeks who stood apart – but its ferocity.  So ferocious were the Romans of the later first millennium BC  that, in broad historical perspective, their behaviour bears comparison only with that of the Mongols or Timurids 1500 years later. Like the Mongols, they took resistance, particularly that of besieged cities, as a pretext justifying wholesale slaughter of the defeated.

No army before that of the Roman republic, however, achieved its level of legally and bureaucratically regulated recruitment, organisation, command and supply. From the Punic wars onward, it stood apart from all other institutions in the civilised world – perhaps its only, though invisible, equivalent was the Chinese mandarinate – as a phenomenon of confident self-sufficiency. Its ability to persist successfully in unrelenting warmaking, whether in wars thrust upon Rome or deliberately undertaken, derived in large measure from the state’s solution of all centralised governments’ besetting military difficulty: that of assuring a steady source of reliable and effective recruits.

Yet the ultimate strength of the Roman army, and the characteristic that made it the model, a millennium later, for those raised in the dynastic states of Europe, following the revival of classical learning at the Renaissance, from which the great modern armies descend, was supplied neither by its system of recruitment nor by its high command but by its legionary encadrement, the centurionate. The Roman centurions, long-service unit-leaders drawn from the best of the enlisted ranks, formed the first body of professional fighting officers known to history. It was they who imbued the legions with backbone and transmitted from generation to generation the code of discipline and accumulated store of tactical expertise by which Roman arms were carried successfully against a hundred enemies over five centuries of almost continuous warmaking.

 With an officer corps of the quality represented by Ligustinus, formed of men whose life was soldiering, who entertained no expectation of rising into the governing class, and whose ambitions were entirely limited to those of success within what could be perceived, for’ the first time in history, as an esteemed and self-sufficient profession.


Since all but the most primitive operations of war entail protraction and movement, warriors necessarily burden themselves with rations as well as weapons. Experience, however, borne out by modern field trials, has established that the soldier’s load cannot on average be made to exceed seventy pounds’ weight – of which clothes, equipment, arms and necessaries will form at least half; as a daily intake of solid food by a man doing heavy work weighs at least three pounds, it follows that a marching soldier cannot carry supplies for more than ten or eleven days, and of course the burden is only worth the effort if the food is provided in imperishable form. These figures have not varied over centuries.

The transport of bulk supplies requires access to a waterway close to the line of march – a river or coastal sea route – or else the use of wheels; pack animals… are a poor substitute.

But the axis of supply then determines that of the campaign: it may be that if a river leads in the wrong direction, the decisive battle cannot be fought. Roads for wheeled transport, if the road network is of any density, give more logistic flexibility, but until road engineering was undertaken on a major scale in Europe from the eighteenth century onward, first in France, later in Britain and Prussia, few regions furnished such a network .. and, until the development of macadamisation in the early nineteenth century, roads generally lacked an all-weather surface.

The exception to this state of affairs prevailed only within the Roman empire and in part also in China (though Chinese waterways, particularly the Grand Canal, begun AD  608, served the main purpose of internal communication), and it was Rome’s roads that made the legions who built them so effective an instrument of imperial power.

Military diet was revolutionised in the middle of the nineteenth century by the appearance of canned meat… evaporated milk (1860), dried milk powder (1855) and margarine.

Railways revolutionised warmaking on land, and the American Civil War was the first to demonstrate that trend.

Napoleon’s blunt maxim has an overriding truth: victory goes ultimately to the big battalions, and the coming of the railway age ensured that the states which could raise big battalions were at least enabled to transport them speedily, swiftly and at all seasons to a chosen place of deployment.

In 1494 the French achieved the appropriate [cannon] breakthrough. Most important of all, the guns were mobile; because the tubes were cast in one piece, ‘trunnions’, short flanges projecting just forward of the point of balance, could be incorporated into them, by which they could be hung in wooden two-wheeled carriages. The cannon thus became as manoeuvrable as a small cart – even more manoeuvrable when the ‘trail’ of the carriage was hitched to another two-wheeled ‘limber’, forming an articulated unit to which horses could be directly harnessed between shafts;

Improvisation, however, could not adapt old walls to withstand new cannon forever. An alternative system of fortification was needed. The wonder is that it was found so quickly, so quickly indeed that the age of overwhelming artillery dominance was quite short, little more than a half-century.

The bastion fortress restored the advantage of defence over offence as rapidly as cannon had reversed it at the end of the fifteenth century. By the end of the sixteenth, the frontiers of every state that aspired to preserve its sovereignty were protected at the most vulnerable points – mountain passes, river-crossings, navigable estuaries – by modern defences. The internal pattern of fortification was also altered: there were few ‘star forts’ in the hinterland, for kings used their monopoly of expensive artillery to push over the strongholds of their last dissident grandees and to prevent them rebuilding castles with bastions. At the frontiers, however, fortification was becoming denser than it had ever been before, and much more effective as a means both of imposing a military barrier and of defining the outlines of a government’s jurisdiction. The modern frontiers of Europe are, indeed, largely the outcome of fortress building, by which existing linguistic and the new, post-Reformation religious boundaries were teased and chivvied into neatness.

Mediterranean galley warfare, as the historian John Guilmartin has made so brilliantly clear, remained essentially what it had been for two millennia, an amphibious undertaking in which not only were the sea battles a variant of contemporary land battles, but the campaigns themselves were normally an extension of operations on shore. Armies and fleets accompanied each other by coastwise movement as far as possible, seeking to engage the enemy only when the inshore flank of the fleet locked with that of the army, or vice versa, preferably at a point where a fortified place could lend artillery support to both.

Cannon were the key weapons of the European maritime adventurers…  By the end of the century, the cannon-armed forts the Iberian seafaring nations had planted along the coasts of all the world’s oceans were claim stakes of empires that were to grow during the next 300 years.

The societies which the first European navigators encountered had few means with which to oppose their demands, first, for trading-rights, then for land on which to build trading-posts, finally for exclusive trading-rights enforced by military control. African coastal kingdoms, protected by a disease barrier, survived intact into the nineteenth century, but only at the cost of complicity in an ever-expanding and horribly destructive slave-gathering trade into the hinterland. The Japanese preserved their traditional society by closing their maritime borders and defying the Europeans to test their hardihood in battle against that of the samurai. China was protected from dissection by its enormous size and bureaucratic coherence. Much of the rest of the world proved easy prey… .Only in India was there a state system organised at a level adequate to deny the Europeans intrusive footholds; yet even the Moghuls, since they were recent conquerors whose control at the periphery was not absolute, failed to exclude them altogether. Moreover, no Moghul emperor succeeded in organising a seagoing, cannon-armed fleet, the only guarantee of a coastline’s security against its European equivalent.

 Yet it was not the musket-bayonet combination alone that gave eighteenth- century battles their distinctive character. Even more important was the universalisation of infantry drill.

Drill, discipline, mechanical tactics, scientific gunnery all worked to make eighteenth-century warmaking quite different in character from the chaotically experimental style of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. By 1700 the weapons with which battles were fought had assumed a form that did not alter for 150 years. The infantry was armed with a musket which, though almost harmless to combatants at ranges much above a hundred yards, could be used in mass volley-firing to create a deadly killing-zone immediately to the front of the battle line. Increasingly mobile and quick-firing field artillery offered the only certain means of shaking the solidity of drilled· infantry formations; its safe deployment, however, could be threatened by the timely unleashing of cavalry, which was increasingly committed to that subordinate activity, and to charging against infantry disorganised by artillery fire or harrying fugitives driven to flight.

The opposed properties of these three elements of eighteenth-century armies, musketry, artillery, cavalry, thus brought about a strange equilibrium on pitched battlefields, leading to what Professor Russell Weigley has identified as a persistent indecisiveness in the succession of struggles fought by the dynastic monarchies in western Europe, usually over rights of succession, between the last Dutch wars at the end of the seventeenth century and the outbreak of the French Revolution…. It was an exhaustion of reserves of money and manpower that brought eighteenth-century wars to an end rather than decision by clash of arms.

The [French] Revolution dissolved that contradiction. It brought into being almost overnight a true citizen army, which found in the tactical disputes of the ancien regime the solution to the problems it was shortly to encounter on the battlefield with the surviving ancien regime armies… Partly it was due to the sheer size of the Revolutionary armies – which had grown to  983,000 in  1793, at the end of a century in which  100,000 had been an enormous force – and to their disregard for logistic convention; fortresses blocking a line of supply lost their point when the surrounding countryside filled with troops who took what they chose.

Most of all, success stemmed from the superior quality of the Revolutionary armies themselves. At least at the outset, they were composed of men who were genuinely willing soldiers, devotees of a ‘rational’ state (even if its nature greatly alarmed many of the surviving rationalists of the Age of Reason), and led by officers of outstanding personal qualities. It seems untrue that they were undertrained.

When led into battle, the ‘amalgamated’ units simply outfought their enemies, who remained trapped in the habits of doltish obedience and stereotyped tactics from which the French had escaped.

The Polish campaign unveiled the new tactics for which Germany’s land and air forces were equipped and trained. Called Blitzkrieg  ‘lightning war’ , a journalist’s term but a descriptive one, it concentrated the tanks of the panzer divisions into an offensive phalanx, supported by squadrons of dive-bombers as ‘flying artillery’, which, when driven against a defended line at a weak spot – any spot was, by definition, weak when struck by such a preponderant force – cracked it and then swept on to spread confusion in its wake.

Here was the basis for an offensive revolution… The real secret is speed – speed of attack through speed of communication.

Unlike the Chinese Manchu, who responded to Western technical challenge by counting on the resilience of traditional culture to negate its destabilising effects, the Japanese, from  1866 onward, took a conscious decision to learn the secrets of the West’s material superiority and bend them to the service of their own nationalism.

Other non-European states that attempted this emulation of the West’s military power, notably Muhammad Ali’s Egypt and nineteenth-century Ottoman Turkey, had failed. The purchase of Western weapons did not, it proved, entail with it the transfer of the West’s military culture. But Japan succeeded in acquiring the one with the other.


Culture is nevertheless a prime determinant of the nature of warfare.

If you would like to learn more about how warfare has shaped human history, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

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