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for which it had been forged. Thus was created an arti-
ficial and distorted view of war. But inasmuch as this
view was common to all the governments of Europe, the
adoption of it was fraught with no special perils to any one
of them. It was unnecessary to aim at your enemy's
total destruction, since he in reality was not aiming at
yours. Indeed, it might even be highly impolitic to beat
him too soundly. For the international system, commonly
known as ' the balance of power,' was exactly calculated
to rob a belligerent of the spoils of victory. No sooner had
a marked superiority been established over the enemy's
forces than the intervention of some other state or states,
alarmed for the equilibrium of the continent, might alter
the whole character of the military problem. Offensive
plans must then be abandoned in the full tide of success,
and defensive ones hastily matured. And in the end the
conqueror might be compelled by a coalition to relinquish
all or much that he had already won. Policy itself, there-
fore, in certain circumstances, might even dictate a slack
and nerveless prosecution of the struggle. So long at any
rate as governments, actuated by political and financial
considerations, set an extreme value on the preservation
of their armies, and so long as all Europe continued to
exhibit a delicate sensibility towards every variation in
' the balance of power,' the presumption was that war


would always proceed through half-measures to the attain-
ment of limited results.

War being the servant of policy and not its master, it is
right and natural that policy should prescribe the ultimate
object of war. So too, the statesmen who furnish the
generals in the field with armies necessarily compel those
generals to adopt only such methods of warfare as are
suitable to the numbers and quality of the troops provided.
Up to this point there need be no improper interference of
the civilian in the business of the soldier. But whenever
the military commander is not himself an absolute monarch,
whenever in fact he is not in the position of a Napoleon, a
Frederick, or a Charles XII, governments have the power
of imposing their own ideas of strategy and tactics upon
officers who have no option but to obey or to resign. In the
period now under consideration a habit of caution, so
extreme as to be often indistinguishable from timidity,
was successfully communicated by the statesmen to most of
the generals whom they employed. The generals were
virtually forbidden to regard the destruction in battle of
the armed forces of the enemy as the correct method of war.
A battle was attended with such stupendous risks even to
the victors that it was usually avoided and seldom sought
Other and less dangerous operations were universally pre-
ferred. The ruling idea was not swift annihilation but
slow attrition. If you were the stronger of the two com-
batants, you might take the offensive, and endeavour by
surprise to occupy some portion of the enemy's territory.
If this attempt were successful, you did not instinctively
follow up the blow; you probably assumed the defensive
and merely essayed to hold what you had taken until your
opponent grew weary of the struggle to eject you. If
however you were the weaker, you did your best to render
the progress of your antagonist both tedious and expensive,
in the hope that sooner or later he might tire of his enter-
prise or abandon it as unworthy of the cost; but in any
event you strove for delay. Time was always the friend
of the weaker side, for time might bring forth an ally or
even a coalition of allies. In warfare of this description
the capture of some rich and populous city or some powerful


fortress was considered to be a triumph sufficient in itself
for a whole campaign. To occupy a province and to feed
your army there at the enemy's expense was a great achieve-
ment. To oblige the enemy to subsist upon his own re-
sources was not a small one.

The military men, who were more or less compelled to
adopt these false ideas of their own profession, were not
necessarily ignorant of the importance of annihilating the
enemy in battle. But they had imbibed their employers'
terror of the risks involved. To fight, unless you were
forced to fight, or unless you were possessed of some palpable
advantage over your opponent, came therefore to be regarded
as stupid rashness. As Sheridan remarked of the army
of the Potomac, " the trouble was that the commanders
never went out to lick anybody, but alwaj^s thought first
of keeping from getting licked." Feuquieres, a veteran
officer of the age of Louis XIV, and one of the clearest
and most informed of writers upon the art of war, recognised
the value of battles. A battle, he declared, will often
determine the result of the whole war, and almost always
that of a particular campaign. But just because it may
carry with it such decisive consequences, he argues that a
battle " must not be fought except under necessity and for
important reasons."^ War, conducted upon these prin-
ciples, tended to become a problem of manoeuvring for
superior positions or superior numbers. By menacing
fortresses you tried to induce your opponent to reinforce
the garrisons and weaken his army in the field. By affecting
an inclination for battle you tempted him to strengthen
his army and deplete his garrisons. For weeks and months
at a time great masses of armed men marched and counter-
marched and encamped within striking distance of one
another without delivering a single blow. Ever3^body was
so afraid of making a mistake that frequently little or
nothing was done. Yet even so it was necessary to cat
and drink; and the army which was eating and drinking
in the enemy's country was supposed to have much the
better of an otherwise futile game. If, however, for reasons
of state, it was desired to conciliate the civil population,

^ M^moires dtt Marquis de Feuquieres (1740), t. iii., p. 176.

WAR * 7

supplies must be bought in open market or forwarded
from previously prepared magazines, and even the advantage
of free quarters was lost. It is obvious that, when the ends
of war were pursued by such spurious and pettifogging
methods, war itself was bound to become both dilatory
and ineffective. It is obvious also that a military system,
which to modern students is apt to appear as an elaborate
absurdity, originated in the political circumstances and
exigencies of the time, and was accepted by soldiers either
because there was no alternative, or because it was imposed
on them by statesmen whose authority they were unable
to defy.

The statesmen however must not be unduly censured.
If they were cautious, they had also solid reasons for
caution. And neither they nor the generals could accom-
plish the impossible. Judged by modern standards, the
largest of the armies of that period were small. At Breiten-
feld there were 35,000 Swedes to the same number of
Imperialists; at Rocroi, 20,000 French to 26,000 Spaniards;
at Enzheim, 22,000 French to 35,000 of the allies; at'
Blenheim, 52,000 of the allies to 56,000 French; at Almanza,
15,500 of the allies to 25,000 French; at Rosbach, 25,000
Prussians to 50,000 French and Imperialists. These were
typical engagements. Battles like Malplaquet, where
more than 90,000 combatants appeared on either side,
were abnormal. Now a small army is relatively much
weaker than a large one. A commander who assumes the
offensive with a quarter or a half a million of men, and
loses 50 per cent, or even 75 per cent, of his total, has
still an army. He may still go forward. But a com-
mander, who with 20,000 or 30,000, or even 50,000 men
undergoes a similar experience, has nothing left, or next to
nothing for offensive purposes. How great is the wastage
of war, especially for attacking armies, may be judged by
three examples. In 1812 Napoleon crossed the Niemen
with 442,000 men; yet he reached Moscow, three months
later, with only 95,000. In 1870 the Germans entered
France with 372,000 men; yet they came to Paris, after
six weeks, with only 171,000. In 1878 the Russians passed
the Danube with 460,000 men: yet they brought but 100,000


to Constantinople, and more than half of those were sick.
Exposed to losses on a like scale, the smaller armies of an
earlier age would have virtually disappeared. This con-
sideration vitally modified the strategy of that period.
But it was neither invented by statesmen nor forced upon
unwilling soldiers; it was a simple truth which was apparent
to all, and the consequences of which could never be
eluded, as long as the numbers of the forces available
remained so limited.

" The only decisive result of victory," wrote Thiebault,
" is the occupation of capitals, and not that of fortresses,
which only serve to weaken an army corps by the garrisons
they require."-^ And certainly a modern army, victorious
upon the enemy's frontier, is expected to march swiftly
upon his capital. But the generals of this earlier age
regarded such a movement as a vain imagination. An army
of 50,000 men, which in those days was a large army,
would, in the great majority of cases, have been quite
inadequate for the purpose. Suppose that it had attempted
such a task, and that the constant wastage from disease
and battle had been regularly made up by drafts from its
base. At every stage it would have been compelled to
leave behind it a guard sufficient to protect its communica-
tions against a hostile population and organised raids by the
enemy. At many of the earlier stages it would have been
obliged to detach considerable contingents to mask or to
blockade the numerous fortresses which guarded the front iers .
If a general neglected these precautions, he might be cut
off from his base and eventually destroyed. If he observed
them, he might find himself,long before the end of his journey,
without any army at all. A modern general, starting with
200,000 or 300,000 men, could do all that was necessary on
the march, and still retain a sufficiency of strength for the
achievement of his purpose when he reached his goal.
But an army of 50,000 men, or fewer, could not undertake
such an enterprise. It might indeed direct its course to-
wards the enemy's capital. But as it could not afford to
mask or to blockade the strong places on the way, it must
stop to capture them. And as the art of the military

1 Memoirs of Baron Thiebault, ch. x., p. 185.


engineer attained, in the second half of the seventeenth
century, to a high degree of excellence, this process was a
slow and costly one. Meanwhile, the enemy, who could
calculate almost to a day the number of weeks or months
which must be expended on a particular fortress, had abun-
dant leisure to recover from defeat and to organise a new
resistance. Under such conditions the advance upon his
capital might occupy years instead of weeks. Deprived
of the terrifying effect of rapidity, the movement lost the
greater part of that moral advantage which is its chief

In these circumstances it is easy to understand why sieges
were much more frequent than battles. And the general
tendency in this direction received a powerful impulse from
one special factor, the importance of which can hardly be
exaggerated. It was mainly on her north-eastern frontier
that France fought out her quarrel with the Spaniard;
and it was there that she faced the combined armies of
England and Holland. On either side this frontier was
studded with fortresses of the most approved pattern,
protected in many cases by natural or artificial inundations,
and so disposed as to command the numerous rivers, which
were then the best and swiftest highways for artillery and
stores. If the French desired to march through the Spanish
Netherlands to Brussels or to Antwerp, if a coalition desired
to strike across Picardy and Artois to Paris, in either case a
double and even a triple barrier of fortified places must be
slowly and painfully forced. In this difficult country in-
numerable campaigns were conducted, and many reputations
made and lost. Successive generations of soldiers, trained
up in such a school of warfare, were naturally impressed
with the necessity of numerous sieges. Unfortunately they
too often exhibited a disposition to base universal conclu-
sions upon the special and local circumstances of a particular
area. They too often failed to realise that what was right
in a country where the art of Vauban and of Coehoorn had
been exercised in the highest degree, might well be wrong
in Germany, Italy, or Spain, where fortresses were few and
mostly obsolete. They fell into the fallacy of supposing
that, just because the French were admittedly the foremost


soldiers of Europe, the French method of making war on
what Mr. Shandy called " the old prize-fighting stage of
Flanders "^ must be regarded as the correct method of
making war everywhere. Moreover, Louis XIV, who set
the mode in all things, disliked battles; but he dearly
loved to besiege a place in form. Thanks to his patronage,
an operation which was often necessary became always

It may be contended that the smallness of armies was
largely the result of an unsound strategy, which favoured
the dispersion of fighting strength over several theatres
of war at the same time. Theoretically this criticism may
be justified. But in practice, there were at least two
formidable difficulties in the way of a large concentration
of troops at a given point or on a single frontier. In the
first place, the highways of that epoch were generally
few, and frequently atrocious. Much of the intervening
coufitry was obstructed by impenetrable forests that have
now been felled, and by dangerous morasses that have long
since been drained. The modern system, whereby an army
is divided into several homogeneous corps, moving on an
extensive front and utilising a multitude of parallel or
converging roads, had not been introduced, because the
topographical conditions were unfavourable to its adoption.
The army, whatever its size, was organised as a single unit.
It marched and camped and marched again as a single unit.
The larger it was, the more slowly it progressed, and the
more dependent it became upon navigable rivers for the
transport of its artillery and stores. But navigable rivers
were not always available; or if they were, they were apt to
be blocked by powerful fortresses. What therefore a general
gained in numbers he lost in time; and the more he
increased his striking force, the more he diminished his

And secondly, with a great expansion of numbers, the
problem of subsistence became soon unmanageable. The
rich and fertile countries, where food was abundant, M'ere
precisely those which were most thickly garnished with
fortified places of immense strength, commanding every

' Sterne, The Lije and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, book iii., ch xxv.

WAR 11

road and controlling every waterway. The poor and
sparsely populated ones could not be safely entered without
the previous formation of enormous and expensive magazines,
from which the troops at the front could be regularly
supplied. In either case, and whether the forces were great
or small, the magazine system was the normal system of the
time. The Revolutionary and Napoleonic method of
licensed brigandage, whereby an army swept forward like
a horde of locusts, devouring all things in its path, and
spurred into extreme mobility by the constant prick of
hunger, did not commend itself either to the generals or the
governments of that age. It did not commend itself to the
generals, because it involved the conversion of the line of
possible retreat into a desert, peopled only by the spectre
of starvation and a ruined and revengeful peasantry. And
in any event it could not be adopted except in conjunction
with that extensive front and that army-corps system, which
have already been shown to have been impracticable. It did
not commend itself to the governments because the theatre
of war was usually the prize for which the war itself was being
waged, and a devastated and disaffected province would offer
but a poor return for the treasure invested in the struggle.
Motives of expediency, therefore, and not of superior
humanity, dictated the use of magazines. The larger the
masses that were assembled at the point of concentration,
the more dependent they became on this method of supph'.
But the range of any army which is tied to magazines is of
necessity restricted.

The loss of time and loss of energy, which were the
dominant features of such warfare, were conspicuously
exhibited in the annual custom of suspending active opera-
tions from the middle of autumn until the ensuing spring
was well advanced. Both sides withdrew into winter-
quarters as if by mutual agreement, not to emerge- again
until the orthodox interval of six months or thereabouts
had duly expired. Fantastic as this practice may appear
to modern eyes, it was based upon strong and even impera-
tive considerations. Foremost of all was, as usual, the
extreme anxiety of the governments to spare their troops.
History, and especially modern history, has proved again


and again that campaigning in hard winter is the ruin of
armies. In resolutely refusing to expose their small and
valuable forces to conditions more deleterious than battle
itself, the old governments displayed no more than ordinary
prudence. And in reality they had no great option in the
matter. For the advent of winter virtually put an end to
the mobility of armies. With few exceptions the roads of
that epoch were bad at the best. Worn out by the opera-
tions of the summer months, and swamped by the autumnal
rains, they passed through frost and snow-storm into a
condition impassable by large bodies of men and horses,
to say nothing of artillery and transport. For this reason
alone some period of hibernation was almost always justi-
fiable, and even inevitable. On the other hand, the period
was often unduly extended. The opportunity offered by a
fine autumn, an open winter, or a precocious spring, was
rarely seized. The custom hardened into a rule of the game,
a kind of military ritual, punctiliously observed by both
sides to the entire neglect of the true principles of war.
But all such delay, even when it was unavoidable, was essen-
tially pernicious. It meant that the concluding weeks of
the too brief campaigning season were often devoted to the
capture of some fortress which derived its sole importance
from its proximity to the district selected for cantonments.
It meant that a blow, struck at the close of active operations,
could not be followed up, that the full fruits of victory
could not be reaped. It meant also that a beaten enemy,
if only he could hold out as long as the fine weather lasted,
could not be crushed. Winter brought him ample leisure
to recuperate, to study the causes of defeat, to levy and train
recruits, to form new alliances, to solicit the interest of
Europe, and to renew the conflict in the spring with recovered
vigour. Thus delay gave birth to delay, and war tended
to degenerate into a mere test of the financial endurance
of the contending powers.

It was not in the region of strategy alone that the art of
war was limited and circumscribed by conditions from
which there was little or no escape. Before condemning the
reluctance of both statesmen and soldiers to engage the
enemy in a pitched battle, some allowance must also be

WAR 13

made for the position of tactical science in that period.
If the combats of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries
are considered in comparison with those of the Napoleonic
and subsequent generations, one remarkable difference
at once emerges. Victory, in the earlier epoch, was, as a
rule, much more costly and much less profitable than in
the later. It was more costly, because, contrary to popular
and fallacious notions on this subject, the development
of weapons has been accompanied by a steady diminution
in the rate of slaughter. As the power of killing has
advanced, the percentage of the killed has fallen. And
this is no paradox, but an easily explicable fact. When
the range, the precision, and the destructiveness of musketry
and artillery were comparatively small, hand to hand
fighting and the terrible butchery which necessarily attends
the use of steel, were common features of the combat.
Moreover, at a time when the assailants never came under
effective fire until they were in close proximity to the de-
fenders, it was possible to induce troops of even moderate
quality to return again and again to the attack. But in
modern war the demoralisation set up at an early stage
of the advance by exposure to a deadly and concentrated
lire from a distant and often unseen enemy is so rapid and
so thorough that the best of soldiers cannot always be
persuaded to risk more than one repulse upon the same day.
War, as it has become more appalhng to the nerves of men,
has become less murderous to their bodies. Consequently,
the generals of the older epoch had to pay, out of the smaller
forces at their disposal, a heavier price for victory than their
modern successors.

And victory itself, though bought thus dearly then, was
apt to prove less fruitful than it is to-day. In all battles
between disciplined armies, directed by leaders of approxi-
mately equal competence, there is usually no very marked
disparity between the numbers of the casualties on both
sides up to the decisive moment at which one or the other
commences to retire. It is during the retreat that the
victor inflicts, or should inflict, the heaviest losses on the
vanquished. Above all, it is in prisoners that he earns, or
should earn, the largest of his profits. Now the battles


of this older period were usually fought between armies
ranged in parallel lines. These lines engaged more or less
along their entire length, and even simultaneously at every
point. A victory gained in such a situation, though it
sometimes yielded astonishing results, was not as a rule so
damaging to the beaten army as it ought to have been.
Not until the time of Frederick, when the value of the
oblique and enveloping orders of attack was first under-
stood, did the conqueror obtain a fair opportunity of reaping
the full fruits of his success. Battles, therefore, were gigan-
tic lotteries, in which the fees were higher and the prizes
smaller than they afterwards became. In these circum-
stances the cautious handling of small, expensive, and
politically invaluable armies becomes easy to understand,
if not always possible to justify.

The notion that a battle was no battle unless it was
fought out between combatants ranged in parallel lines,
with infantry in the centre and cavalry upon the wings,
had other unfortunate results. It meant that the normal
action must be preceded by a tedious and mathematically
correct deployment, which lasted for hours, and which
exposed the soldiery to a trying cannonade from the hostile
guns. It meant also that, unless the country was suffi-
ciently open to allow of this formation, armies must not
engage at all. And so, by a singular perversion, the
initiative was actually transferred to the commander who
had little or no desire to fight, and who, as long as he chose
to avoid the open, could never be attacked except in
defiance of the rules of the game.

The respect, which even enterprising generals showed to
fortified positions and to positions of great natural strength,
was certainly exaggerated, in so far as it was based on the
pedantic idea of an orthodox order of battle in parallel lines.
But it was not always, or necessarily, devoid of more solid
justification. The power of artillery being then insufhciently
developed, and its proper application insufficiently under-
stood, the assault had often to be delivered without that
thorough preparation which ought always to precede it.
When every village was a potential bastion, and when
treacherous morasses abounded where scarcely a trace of

WAR 15

them remains to-day, it was easy to select positions which
could never be carried, or could be carried only at enormous
cost, because the feebleness of the assailants' artillery had
left the defenders virtually unshaken. Moreover, the use
of the spade was well understood. If time were allowed for
it, what was practicable before might be rendered imprac-
ticable in a very fev/ hours. Its abuse was seen in those

Online LibraryFrank TaylorThe wars of Marlborough, 1702-1709 (Volume 1) → online text (page 2 of 44)