The Art of Warfare in the 17th and 18th century

The Art of War in the 17th and 18th Centuries is a history course book whose author’s are United States Military Academy history instructors Lieutenant Colonel Dave Richard Palmer and Major Albert Sidney Britt III. The textbook gives an insight into the military tactics and the political reasons when they were brought about in the 17th and 18th centuries. The text was published in West Point, New York in 1969. The book contains 9 chapters and 185 pages. There is no additional information on the authors.

The book starts with the tactics and life of the young Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus, who began his military career at the age of 16 on the battlefields of the Danish War of 1612, and a year later would inherit the Swedish throne. Gustavus would also lead his armies in the 30 years wars against Catholic forces. Adolphus’ theories, which were stimulated by Maurice of Nassau’s radical tactics, consisted of a highly mobile force, including lightweight, mobile artillery and, “the squadron”, Adolphus’ basic fighting unit.

At this time, the concept of lightweight artillery and a highly mobile fighting force was very radical and thought to be useless. Most military forces at the time were large, and immobile. But the most revolutionary aspect of warfare that Gustavus Adolphus implemented, was his brilliant use of artillery. At the time artillery consisted of huge pieces that took 30 to 40 horses to move. He limited his gun-makers to three sizes, 24 pound, 12 pound, and 3 pound cannons. The 3-pound cannon could easily be moved by one horse or three men, it was the most revolutionary.

By assigning it as a regimental gun of at least one platoon in each squadron, Adolphus provided artillery support right down to the smallest combat unit. This revolutionary tactic and weapon is similar to today’s modern military tactics used today in their use of the modern lethal crew served weapons that are lightweight, and extremely mobile, assigned to Batalion level and below. Upon landing on the German shore of Peenemunde, I wonder if Adolphus realized that one day his ingenious and revolutionary theories would some three centuries later influence the German scientists developing the modern day rocket at Peenemunde.

After Gustavus Adolphus’ death, warfare settled down to a slower pace and a more stable mold. Warfare experienced the growth of professional armies loyal to the king. But the great cost of building and maintaining such armies led to a concern for their safety, a hesitation to risk them in bloody encounters, and a preoccupation with defense and fortifications. Strategy during this period was essentially of limited aim and was greatly concerned with the art of siege craft, for which elaborate rules were prescribed.

With the growth of professional armies loyal to their kings, came Louis XIV, King of France. Unlike Gustavus, who wrung victories from tactical innovations, Louis sought military efficiency through extreme centralization. This approach, brought forth great results at first, but would eventually become a self-defeating theory. It is roughly accurate to say that every aspect of “the Sun King’s” army was centralized in the war ministry, which was headed by a civilian loyal to, and working directly for, the King.

Organization, logistics, strategy, and even tactics came from this central office, opposed to the chaotic, maybe even anarchic system in use before, this centralization immediately produced results. But this strength in its centralization was also its fatal weakness. By its very nature, concentrated control eliminates initiative at lower echelons, deadens effect on subordinate leaders, and fails to instill decisiveness and confidence among field commanders. Eventually, nothing functions without precise and timely guidance from the top.

If the center remains strong and sure, the system works, but if it becomes weak and uncertain, the entire structure crashes. In mid-18th century Prussia, however, circumstances compelled Fredrick the Great to try a new and aggressive approach and to break through the accepted military pattern of the day. Confronted at the outset of the Seven Years’ War (1756-63) by a coalition of Austria, France, Russia, Sweden, and Saxony, Frederick found himself virtually surrounded. His task was to devise a strategy to defend his territory and not to dissipate his outnumbered troops.

The strategy he evolved did not follow set rules or recipes. In his planning Frederick capitalized on two valuable assets; his army, a superior and highly disciplined instrument of war, and a central position. He sought always to keep the initiative, to attack first one enemy and then another, to assemble at decisive points a force superior to that of his foe, and to avoid long, drawn-out wars. Using his central position to concentrate against individual armies of the enemy before others could reinforce them, he developed the classical “strategy of interior lines. But even Frederick, the statesman-warrior, could not entirely escape the conditions imposed by the warfare of his times.

He could not expose his costly armies to the risk of destruction and bloody decision by battle. His battles were not those of annihilation. In the end his wars were decided by reasons of state, and those wars left his nation exhausted. The age that immediately followed Frederick chose to imitate his caution rather than his aim. Military theory was characterized by ideas of victory without battle, maneuvering for position, and a system of lines and angles of operation.

Geometric concepts and cunning tricks and artifices replaced the aim to destroy enemies. Great emphasis was put on terrain and the occupation of key geographic points. The 18th century, it must be remembered, was the era of enlightenment, and warfare conformed to the spirit of the age. Strategy, like all warfare, became “mathematical” and “scientific. ” Theorists optimistically maintained that a general who knew mathematics and topography could direct campaigns with geometric precision and win wars without even fighting.

But the new mode of warfare ushered in by the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era was soon to challenge these optimistic assumptions. I enjoyed this book thoroughly, it not only gave an insight into warfare of those times, but also revealed the impact they place upon us even today. The thing, or person that was forged in my mind, was the genius of Gustavus Adolphus. Like many ideas of men ahead of their times, his ideas and theories were scoffed at by the military leaders of his time, unbeknownst to them that his tactics would influence military tactics.


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