John William Fortescue.

Military history; lectures delivered at Trinity college, Cambridge online

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appointments, the faithful fulfilment of their con-
tracts, and the regular payment of their debts.
In fact a little drill and discipline is the very thing
that they most require. However, the school of
implicit obedience is no doubt a hard one, and
sometimes even distressing. There is much that
seems — perhaps even a little that may actually
be — unnecessary and pedantic in the instruction ;
and in time of peace the necessity for this is not
obvious. It is inexpressibly galling to some char-
acters to find the question Why answered unchange-
ably by the formula " Because orders must be
obeyed." They chafe against the compression of


all natures into the same mould ; and the con-
version of one, who flatters himself (not always
with reason) that he is an intelligent mortal, into
a machine.

I shall deal with the weak side of military
discipline presently. Meanwhile observe that its
moral force is founded on one of the noblest of
human, I might say of Christian, virtues. I have
styled it organised self-abnegation — organised self-
surrender of the individual for the sake of the
general ; — only possible through arduous training
in self-denial, self-restraint and self-control.
Observe that, although many religious orders have
taken for their governance the vows of poverty,
chastity and obedience, the most formidable of all
was that founded by an old soldier, who organised
it upon a military model and gave its chief the title
of General. The name of the Jesuits does not
smell sweet in English nostrils, and yet its members
have perhaps outdone all the world in self-sacrifice.
" Go," the General said from time to time to some
young Jesuit in the 17th century, "Go out to the
wilds of North America ; spread the gospel among
the Red Indians ; search out the land and take it
into possession for the most Christian king."
Without a word the command was obeyed. The
missionary went forth, alone or with a comrade,
undaunted by the prospect of being tied up to



roast before a slow fire, or have his fingers bitten
off one by one ; he dwelt among savage men, lived
their lives, subsisted on their food, and, without
counting the risk of being lost or starved, found
his way down the great rivers from the Upper Lakes
to the Gulf of Florida. You know the great ex-
amples of heroism in our own army. You know
the story of the Birkenhead ; and you may perhaps
realise that it is this story which has inspired all
English men and English women to show courage
in a shipwreck. But I shall add just one story, a
very short one, of the wreck of the Warreri Hastings ,
which was carrying four companies of the King's
Royal Rifle Corps and as many of the York and
Lancaster Regiment, on the island of Reunion in
1897. When the ship struck, sentries of the Rifles
were at once posted at various points on the lower
deck, to guard the access to the spirit-room and
such like ; and there they remained while the boats
were lowered to take the battalion ashore. The
water rose steadily upon them inch by inch, and
had reached their chests, when at last an officer
came to summon them also, last of all, to take their
place in the boats. He collected them aU, as he
thought, but in the noise and darkness he missed
one man and left him behind. The man saw his
comrades disappear up the ladder, and the officer
about to follow them, and not till then did he ask,


without quitting his post, " Beg pardon, sir, may I
come too ? " If ever you hear any man speak
lightly of military discipline, tell him that story,
for that Rifleman is worthy to be placed alongside
the Roman sentry at Pompeii.

Yet it is very necessary that the working of
military discipline should be most carefully studied
in military history, in order that its defects, weak-
nesses and limitations may be thoroughly ascertained
and realised. There is no greater mistake than to
say that disciplined men are machines. They are
nothing of the kind : they are flesh and blood ;
and it is most dangerous to treat them as anything
else. Yet nothing is more common than for people
to suppose that anything is good enough for soldiers
because discipline forbids them to complain. Poli-
ticians in particular often appear to think that a
soldier, in virtue of his discipline, can march all
day and all night, dispense with food and drink,
and lie out in cold and rain with no particular
mischief to himself. I can assure you that in former
days, within the memory of Hving men, English
soldiers were housed in buildings and sent to sea
in vessels that would have been thought too bad
for valuable cattle. Tradesmen and contractors Uke-
wise presume upon the soldiers' enforced patience,
and mobs will insult and pelt them, secure in
the knowledge that the soldiers will not retaliate


without orders. This indeed, albeit infinitely mean
and cowardly, is an unconscious tribute to discipline,
but may easily strain it beyond endurance. The fact
is that discipline which rests wholly upon fear is
not the strongest. Inelastic and unsympathetic
severity, even though it may not actually amount
to injustice, can produce only a passive and dis-
contented obedience, which speedily gives way to
sulky insubordination under any unusual trial.
It is when officers are not in touch with their men
and do not consider them, that the hearts of soldiers
are stolen away by agitators and malcontents. And
then follows mutiny, which if begun in some choice
corps may spread to a whole army, as in the French
Revolution, and bring a dynasty and the traditions
of centuries to the ground. The iU- treatment of
men was common enough in old days, when the
gaps between social classes were wide and the dis-
tinction between them carefully marked, but you
will never find an instance of a successful army in
which the officers did not share the hardships of
the men. Hannibal, for one, frequently slept on
the ground with his outposts.

It is when, as in most modern armies, the officers
put their men before anything else in the world,
that military discipline shines at its brightest. This
does not mean leniency to irregularity or towards
insubordination — a weak or indulgent officer is


neither loved nor respected — but the treatment of
men as men instead of as children, attention to
their .wants, consideration for their feelings, zeal
for their well-being, cultivation of their seK-respect,
forethought to train them to meet every exigency,
endless endeavour to deserve their confidence.
Then there arises in regiments that mysterious
power which is called esprit de corps, when every
soul in them from the colonel to the drummer feels
that his own honour is bound up with the honour
of the regiment, and that the honour of the regiment
is the greatest thing in the world. And so you
find — for one instance out of many thousand —
such a battalion as that of the Fifty-seventh at
Albuera, with two men in every three struck down,
yet conscious of nothing in the dense smoke but of
closing in to the colours and unquestioning resolution
to die where they stood, rather than give way. So
too you find a simple solitary private, in the story
that I have already told you, content to go down
alone in a sinking ship for the honour of the Sixtieth.
Without knowledge of military history men are really
unconscious of the existence of that most wonderful
of moral forces, esprit de corps ; and it is not a thing
of which anyone can afford to be ignorant.

Lastly military history gives us insight into
the character and intellectual powers of some of
the most remarkable men who ever lived. I shall


be told perhaps that the career of an Alexander or
of a Caesar is but a paltry study compared with
that of a Luther or a Franyois Xavier. Be it so.
Different characters attract different students, and
great leaders of men, whether saints or soldiers,
are always worthy of study. Moreover, it is a
most important thing to realise that military history
means the survey of administrative in at least as
great a degree as strategical and tactical genius.
You will all of you recall the happy phrase that
was applied to Carnot — the organiser of victory ;
and Carnot was only one of many who have deserved
the epithet. No man perhaps ever merited it better
than Moses, if only through his standing order
(which you wiU find in the book of Deuteronomy
xxiii. 12-14) that when an army was in the field
there should be appointed places for latrines out-
side the camp, and that all foul matter should be
instantly buried. The regulation is justified by a
noble precept, which in its essence is true for all
time. " The Lord thy God walketh in the midst
of thy camp to deliver thee and to give up thine
enemies before thee ; therefore shall thy camp be
holy, that he see no unclean thing in thee and turn
away from thee." Foul camps mean enteric fever
and dysentery, and these diseases mean the destruc-
tion of the host. To this day it may be said that
the sanitary regulations of Moses have never been


superseded. How many Jewish victories may have
been due to the observance of them we can only
conjecture ; how many hundred millions of lives
have been sacrificed to the neglect of them — for
it is only latterly that their value has been fully
recognised — the Omniscient alone can know.

Turn from Palestine to Greece and look at the
military constitution of Sparta founded by Lycurgus.
Make a huge stride over the ages, and look at Chaka,
the man of genius whose military organisation and
training of his people would have made the Zulus
masters of South Africa, had not the boundless
resources of the British Empire dashed his work —
though not without difficulty and defeat — at last
to the ground. Look at the great men of modern
times, whose names will be more familiar to you,
Frederick the Great, Napoleon, Wellington, and
take note that from the very beginning of history
the greatest generals have almost invariably been
in the very first rank not merely of military but of
civil administrators. It may seem heretical to say
so, but I personally am inclined to think that
Napoleon's work as a civil Governor transcends
even in its own kind the greatest of his military
achievements. I, even as many other men, have
gone through most of the thirty-six volumes of his
correspondence ; and I confess that his reorganisa-
tion of France in the first months of the Consulate —


crude and hasty as in many respects it was, owing
to the urgency of the case and the desperate nature
of the circumstances — appears to me the greatest
thing that ever he did. But all three of these men
are remarkable chiefly for the astonishing results
which they achieved with small means. Frederick,
in spite of terrible defeats and latterly an almost
total failure of resources, contrived somehow to
carry the Seven Years War to a successful end, and
at its close to revive an exhausted Prussia. Napo-
leon took over a France demoralised by ten years
of misrule, and sunk financially to a hopeless depth
of bankruptcy, yet by squandering men in lieu of
money he carried his eagles victoriously from end
to end of Europe. Wellington had so few men that
he could not squander them, and so little money
that, owing to the general lack of specie, he was
obUged to carry on the Peninsular War upon credit,
and incidentally to administer the government of
Portugal as well as direct the operations in the
field, lest that credit should absolutely fail him.
Yet by sheer administrative ability, patience and
tenacity, he prevailed.

I have of design left the question of the technical
study of strategy and tactics until the last. Strategy
may, I think, be defined as the art of bringing armies
up to the battle-field by the right way, in the right
strength, at the right time ; tactics as the art of


handling them on the battle-field to the best ad-
vantage. Of what profit is the study of these two
arts to the citizen at large ? WeU, in the first
place he will learn what may be termed his strate-
gical geography, and why battles are constantly
fought century after century in or about the same
places. He will understand why, for instance, end-
less great actions for the mastery of India have been
fought within fifty miles of lielhi ; the significance
of Stirling on the map of Scotland, and of Acre
on the coast of Syria. He will perceive why, owing
to changes in transport and armament, places whose
names constantly occur in old diplomatic records
have ceased to be of great account and are now
seldom mentioned, whereas others, as I have said,
retain their importance through endless generations.
He will realise, further, how far strategic considera-
tions enter into political arrangements of all kinds,
as for instance that Bismarck the civilian was
against the annexation of Alsace and Lorraine as
tending to perpetuate the hostility of France, but
was overruled by Moltke because the new frontier
was worth 100,000 men. In fact it is not too much
to say that knowledge of miUtary history is essential
to the right understanding not only of domestic
and foreign poHtics, but of the whole story, written
and unwritten, of the human race — which is mainly
a story of fighting.


The interest of tactics is chiefly for professional
men ; but it is worth while to notice its main prin-
ciples, which are simple. All fighting is, and has
always been, of two kinds, hand-to-hand or shock
action, at a distance or missile action. Goliath
challenged the Israelites to shock action, and David
kiUed him by missile action ; and I dare say that
the Philistines thought it unfair. Now, whether for
shock or for missile action, it is very obvious that
if you can overmatch your enemy in numbers —
other things being equal — you are likely to get the
better of him ; and that if you are on higher ground
than he is you can see him better than he can see
you to throw things at him, and can charge him
with greater impetus down hill than he can meet
you with, uphill. It may be said broadly that the
art of tactics is the art of bringing stronger numbers
to bear at some given point, and taking or acquiring
superiority of position. This is the physical side
of tactics. The moral side (apart from discipline)
lies chiefly in those two eternal and undying re-
sources, known as the ambush and the surprise.
Here the leader tries to upset an enemy's physical
advantage of numbers and position by taking him
unawares. There is no flner example of a surprise
in the world than that of Gideon. Think of it —
the silent march of 300 picked men in three com-
panies through the darkness, each with his trumpet


and his torch hidden in a pitcher, the silent sur-
rounding of the hostile camp just before dawn,
when human vitality is at its lowest ; and then the
silence broken by the crash of three hundred pitchers,
the sudden flare of the torches, the braying of three
hundred trumpets as if in signal to a host of thou-
sands unseen in the night ; and the simultaneous
yell " For the Lord and for Gideon." There was
a wild panic in the Midianite camp, and no wonder.
In the darkness they took to fighting each other,
" every man's sword against his fellow." Of course
they did. Exactly the same result was seen many
times over during our last war in South Africa, and
has been seen in every panic from Gideon's age to
our own. Gideon was a man who studied moral

Thus we come back to the point from which
we began. Military history is not the history of
physical but of moral force, perhaps almost of the
triumph of moral over purely physical force. Let
no man say that such a subject is unworthy of our
attention. It is unfortunately impossible to study
deeply any department of the afi^airs of men without
encountering much that is infinitely vile and base
and sordid ; and military history is no exception
to this rule. But it is rich also in noble and heroic
deeds, not of valour only but of patience, self-
sacrifice and endurance. I may be wrong, but I


think that I see in it grander and more frequent
examples of devotion to duty than in any other
branch of history. The opportunities, you wiU
say, are greater ; and there may be some truth in
this ; but I would add that the training to self-
abnegation counts also for very much. It will harm
none of us to know well this story of duty done for
duty's sake ; and it may be that, as the example of
the Birkenhead has nerved all our race to face with
calmness the utmost perils of the sea, so the re-
membrance of the proud history of our soldiers
may brace each one of us, no matter how humble
his sphere, to discipline himself in the self-denial
and self-control which triumph over adversity.



In my last lecture I attempted to deal with
the broad subject of military history at large. To-
day I shall treat of the narrower subject of British
military history. There is nothing arbitrary or
capricious in this ; for British military history is,
owing to our insular position, a thing apart.

Foreign nations, indeed, would say that a country
which has never in the whole course of her existence
put fifty thousand of her own children in line upon
any battle-field and very rarely so many even as


thirty thousand, can have no military history ; but
none the less we have one, which is in many ways
remarkable and worthy of study.

Note in the first place that for five hundred years
after the Conquest England was not a purely insular
power. She had troublesome neighbours in Wales
and Scotland, and her kings had possessions, and
consequently troublesome neighbours, in France.
Remember that it was not until 1558 that we lost
Calais, and that, as long as we possessed it, we had
so to speak a bridge-head which enabled us to enter
France practically at any moment. This was a sad
temptation towards foolish expeditions and waste of
strength ; and it was a great blessing to us really
when the capture of Calais removed it for ever.

Elizabeth, therefore, was our first purely insular
sovereign. What manner of military force did she
find at her accession, and what manner of organisa-
tion for creating and maintaining it ? The sovereign
was empowered, as he still is, to call out every able-
bodied man for the defence of the country ; and upon
the different classes of freemen was imposed by an
Act of 1558, which was based upon an older Act of
1285, the duty of providing themselves with arms
according to their means. Long before 1558 fire-
arms had been brought to such efficiency that a
complete system of tactics had been founded for
their use by the ablest soldiers on the Continent ;


but in England the Statute still professed content-
ment with the weapons of three centuries earlier,
bows and bills ; and there were remarkably few fire-
arms in the country at all. There were, however,
great traditions derived in part from Saxon times,
but strengthened, developed and enlarged by the
victories of Edward the Third, his son Edward,
Prince of Wales, and king Harry the Fifth, in France
and in Spain in the fourteenth and fifteenth

I told you in my last lecture that all fighting,
from the earliest times to the present, is in the
ultimate resort of two kinds — hand-to-hand or shock
action, at a distance or missile action. In the hands
of the English a very old missile weapon, the bow,
had become, in the form of the long bow, the most
deadly and formidable of its time. Every English
boy was trained to the use of it, and was taught to
bring every muscle of his body to bear upon it, just
as in rowing you are taught not to row with your
arms only, but with your legs also and with all the
weight of your body. " My father taught me to lay
my body to the bow," says Bishop Hugh Latimer.
The result was that their arrows were discharged
with great rapidity and accuracy, and with such
strength that they were effective in the matt-er of
penetration at an astonishingly long range. The
shock action of mediaeval times, as you know.


was confined chiefly to mounted men-at-arms, clad
in armour from head to foot, and furnished with
lances, who moved in dense masses at very moderate
speed, and trampled down everything that stood in
their way. How did the English archers deal with
them ? They aimed mainly at their horses, which,
maddened by the pain, ran away with their riders,
and carried confusion everywhere ; but being ac-
curate shots, the archers aimed also at the joints of
the harness — at the intervals between gorget and
breast-plate, between breast-plate, or back-plate,
and thigh-pieces, which were exposed by the swaying
of the body, and above all the arm-pit when the arm
was raised to strike. But how about the English
men-at-arms, you will ask ? Why did not the enemy
shoot their horses with arrows, and make them un-
manageable also ? Here we come to the English
peculiarity. The English men-at-arms always dis-
mounted to fight, broke off their lances to a length
that could be easily handled and, ranked together
in a dense mass, used them as pikes. So here there
was the tradition of a missile infantry, so to speak,
steady and deadly shots ; and of a shock infantry
which could not be broken and, moreover, after
winning a victory could mount and pursue on

The new tactics of the Continent, which the
English had to learn, had taken much the same

F. M. H. 4


direction. The Swiss, in order to keep mounted
men-at-arms at a distance, had bethought them
of ranging their infantry into dense masses, armed
with pikes fourteen feet long, and this they had done
with such success that they had vindicated the
position of infantry as the most important element
on the battle-field. Other nations took up the idea,
either for mercenaries or national troops ; and,
with the improvement of fire-arms, missile infantry
developed into musketeers, or "shot" as they were
called, who fought entirely as skirmishers, while shock
infantry was represented by dense masses of pikemen.
Simultaneously the cavalry became a missile force.
Unable to make any impression against a bristling
wall of pikes, they gave up their lances and provided
themselves with pistols, so as to shoot the pikemen
down from a distance. Hence it was customary
to cover the pikemen with heavy armour on breast
and thighs, which prevented them from moving very
fast. The fate of the battle, however, was determined
by them. Musketeers and cavaliers worried each
other and the pikemen for as long as they dared,
but the ultimate issue was decided when pike met
pike. The chief reason for this was the system
adopted for maintaining a continuous fire. This
was to range the musketeers in ten ranks, and let
these ranks fire in succession, the first rank filing to
the rear as soon as its weapons were discharged, in


order to reload, and leaving the second rank to do
likewise, and so on. In theory the system was
ingenious ; but in practice it was found that men
thought a great deal more about filing to the rear
rapidly, than about firing steadily and accurately*
Of course if heavy artiUery could be brought within
range of a square of pikemen, it might blast them
off the field ; but cannon were too cumbrous and
difficult to move for this to be often possible ; and
thus the decision of the day was left, as it still is,
to cold steel. You will see wonderful pictures of
combats of pikemen, just as you see the like repre-
sentations of fights with the bayonet. I doubt
greatly if they ever occurred. Both sides approached
each other with the pike or bayonet no doubt ; but
before they closed one side turned and ran away. All
nations boast of their prowess with the bayonet,
our own among others, but few men really enjoy a
hand-to-hand fight with the bayonet, however much
they may enjoy a hand-to-hand pursuit. You
remember that the Homeric heroes, after a certain
amount of close combat, invariably threw stones at
each other ; and the practice has never died out.
English and French both talk much of the bayonet ;
but in Egypt in 1801 they threw stones at each other
when their ammunition was exhausted, and one

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Online LibraryJohn William FortescueMilitary history; lectures delivered at Trinity college, Cambridge → online text (page 3 of 13)