Military history


The Last of the Gentlemen’s Wars was what Major-General J. F. C. Fuller, the British military theorist, entitled his account of the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902, in which he had fought as a young officer. The title was apt. Despite their social differences, the Afrikaner farmers of the Transvaal Republic and the Orange Free State and the officers and soldiers of the British regular army opposed against them shared a common military code. Both cared for each other’s wounded and prisoners, respected the rights of non-combatants and observed the conventions of parlay and truce. Each side, at least at the outset of hostilities, fought a ‘clean’ war, face to face, man to man, with rifle or sword on ‘equal’ terms.

A point of particular, if implicit, agreement in this ‘gentlemen’s war’ was that neither side should employ the services of the African ‘natives’ who formed the majority of the population in the theatre of war. The Boers, who were fighting in part to defend their privileged status as white men in the black world they ruled, declined in any case to do so. The British, who were protecting an imperial system in which blacks occupied a lower place, also excluded them from the fighting ranks. The reasons for doing so were on both sides, however, more than political. They were social and cultural. The military culture of the European whites - and the Boers remained European by culture despite their long African domicile - was not that of the native peoples. They, the Zulus in particular, had been warriors before their military power was broken by the invaders and had fought with skill and determination. They had not, however, observed the European conventions. The wounded were slaughtered after battle, prisoners too, while the women and children of the defeated might also be killed, if they were not appropriated as slaves or chattels. Victory in war, particularly to the Zulus, gave the winners absolute rights over the lives and properties of the defeated. Little wonder that neither the Boers nor the British wished to reawaken the military habits of the subject peoples.

Differences - and tensions - between the world’s military cultures, present and past, are a major theme of this collection. It begins with the Heroic Age of the Greek world, from which comes down to us not only some of the earliest literature of war but also some of the greatest. Homer, in The Iliad, describes the events and the personalities of the Trojan War. His account, composed in the eighth century BC, of an episode of the twelfth century, must have been based on folk memory. Both archaeology and scholarship nevertheless attest to the reality of the conflict, while Homer’s dramatic verse undoubtedly depicts the heroic style of combat with remarkable veracity.

Heroes represented the societies for which they fought. At the same time, they fought for themselves rather than those who followed them or the wider community beyond the battlefield. Heroes observed a code of honour but not of social responsibility. Heroes fought heroes: that was the essence of the heroic code. It demanded fair fight, face to face, with equal weapons and without the intervention of supporters, who traditionally participated only as spectators. Victory in heroic single combat brought prestige and benefit to the winner’s side, since the loser’s was diminished by his defeat. It was the peculiar and horrible circumstances of defeat that lent single combat its dramatic quality. The victor was not expected to show mercy. The incapacitated opponent was to be killed without hesitation when he fell, his armour and weapons appropriated as trophies and his body mutilated and exhibited in celebration of the victor’s triumph.

Antique heroism is repugnant to the modern world, which associates the heroic ideal with magnanimity in victory and concern for the welfare of the vanquished. It would take many centuries, however, and the implantation of a new ethical culture, that of Christianity, for ‘harsh’ heroism to give way to the more merciful heroism of the knight of chivalry and the Renaissance gentleman. Until the appearance of those two warrior types, warrior harshness would remain the norm in most societies and most regions of the world.

There was, however, an important and necessary intermediate stage between the disappearance of the heroic duel as the central act of warfare, and its supersession by collective combat bound by a generally accepted code of laws and practices. That stage was the introduction of drill and discipline on the battlefield. It was closely associated with the rise of political society, in either a monarchical or civic form. Heroic warfare was essentially tribal, a transaction between groups dominated by warriors who held power because they were good at fighting. Such groups were often nomadic or, if settled, existed at a low economic level. Improvements in the techniques of production required a formalization of tribal relationships, either through the institution of kingship or civic assemblies, though the second usually followed the first. Both kingdoms and city states found that a higher level of economic and administrative life required a more structured military system for its defence than primordial warrior ways provided. The result was the formation of armies, monarchical at first in the river lands of the Middle East, then civic in the city states of Greece and Italy.

Without discipline, however, armies are ineffective instruments, needing leadership to order their numbers and concentrate their power. The concentration of power at the highest level achievable with hand-held weapons reached its apogee among the Greek city states of the fifth century BC, where the phalanx, a densely ranked mass of spearmen, won battles by sheer weight and momentum in a few minutes of deadly pushing and stabbing. Since the survival of each of its members depended on maintaining the closest possible bodily contact with neighbours, the phalanx generated an intense spirit of collective effort, which in turn was reflected in the civic life of the Greek states. The flavour of phalanx warfare is transmitted to us through the writings of Thucydides and Xenophon extracted here.

In its heyday, the phalanx was invincible. Like all systems, however, it had the defect of its strength, which was inflexibility. As its enemies learnt to exploit that weakness, competing systems came into being. The most important was that of the rising power of Rome, whose legions preserved the Greeks’ solidity on the battlefield but deployed in smaller and looser sub-units armed with throwing as well as stabbing weapons. The legion’s manoeuvrability was higher than that of the phalanx, allowing it to outflank as well as confront an enemy formation, and so to win by envelopment rather than sheer weight of numbers.

The legions originated as civic militias. The transformation of the later Roman Republic into an empire, however, changed their social structure, the military duty donated by citizens giving way to long-term service performed by regulars. As a result, the Roman legions came to form the first truly professional army, one that remains the model for all its successors. Yet it preserved an important quality from the tribal past, the ferocity with which it waged war and the pitilessness with which it treated the vanquished. Since the official religion of the Roman Empire was emperor worship, those who opposed the emperor could deserve no mercy and in consequence were to be slaughtered or enslaved. A particular cruelty was reserved for those who rebelled against the emperor’s rule. The massacre of the Jewish rebels in Palestine in the first century AD, described by Josephus, exemplifies the fate of impious subjects who fell into the legions’ hands.

By the time the end of the Roman Empire in the west came in the fifth century AD, it was a Christian state, as the eastern half, Byzantium, would remain until the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453. The adoption of Christianity as the empire’s official religion did not, however, affect the way in which its legions fought; at the end, in any case, the imperial army had become largely barbarian in composition. The rise of Christianity was, nevertheless, to exert a profound influence on the conduct of warfare. So too was Islam, when the proponents of that raw creed emerged from the Arabian desert to conquer Roman Africa, the Near East and Iberia in the seventh and eighth centuries.

The early Christians deplored warfare. It was only after several centuries that their successors recognized pacifism to be irreconcilable with the needs of running a Christian state. They attempted all the same to define moral rules that the warrior should observe. Islam deplored combat between fellow believers, and permitted warmaking against unbelievers only if they actively opposed the faith’s spread. Each religion was thus responsible for introducing into military affairs an entirely new principle, that of fighting, within a strictly defined ethical code, for an idea.

The first outright clash between these two religious entities occurred in the era of the Crusades, expeditions begun at the end of the eleventh century as an attempt to recapture the Holy City of Jerusalem for Christendom. The First Crusade had a successful culmination in the taking of Jerusalem in 1099, and the foundation of several Christian kingdoms in the Near East followed. In turn, that inaugurated three centuries of Muslim-Christian conflict in the Eastern Mediterranean, ending with the expulsion of the last Crusaders to a few island footholds - Rhodes, Cyprus, finally Malta - in the fifteenth century. The long passage of arms had manifold results. One was the adoption by Muslim warriors of the practice of chivalry, in essence both a code of honour and of skill at arms that stratified warfare socially and elevated the mounted warrior - in Christian Europe, the knight - to a dominant place. Cavalry had long commanded battlefields, in Europe since the introduction of the stirrup, an Asian invention, in the ninth century. The rise of the knight, and of his Muslim coeval, had the effect, however, of conferring on him a special military status which resolved into political position also. By the fifteenth century the armoured knight, and his Muslim equivalent, the mameluke, dominated territories from the English Channel to the Persian Gulf.

The era of the mounted warrior was to be short-lived, however. One reason for that was the appearance in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries of hordes of tribal horsemen from the Central Asian steppe, first Mongols, then Turks, who had no truck with chivalry and, by brutal weight of numbers, overthrew states - the Islamic Caliphate and the Byzantine Empire, among them - that put their trust in the concept of soldierly honour as a means of defence. Between 1259 and 1453, the Caliphate and the Eastern Roman Empire were overthrown by Mongols and Turks, as were the Christian Russian kingdoms, whilst the heartland of Christian Europe was brought under lethal threat by the pony-riding nomads. The empire of China, in which a horse aristocracy had long ruled, was also attacked and, for a period, brought under nomad rule. Nomads were, indeed, between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries, to be the most potent military force on the Eurasian land mass.

Their era of power was brought to a close by the second important military development of the pre-modern world, the harnessing of gunpowder to warfare. Gunpowder, probably Chinese in origin, had been used sporadically by armies since the fourteenth century. At the end of the fifteenth, as a propellant for cannon balls, it became a decisive agent in the struggle by rulers within the knightly kingdoms to put down their over-mighty subjects by breaking down castle walls. Knights had been brave but undisciplined opponents of the nomad hordes that menaced the eastern frontier of Christian Europe. Once their power was overthrown, as it was during the sixteenth century, and they and their feudal followers replaced as a military instrument by professional soldiers under royal control, the transition from haphazard to dependable military action by states, whether against domestic rebels or foreign enemies, was assured. Gunpowder made the modern state. States were to use it with terrifying effectiveness against both their domestic and foreign enemies from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries.

By the seventeenth century, the technology of gunpowder had been extended from that of the large battlefield cannon, served by a crew, to the personal firearm, equipping an individual. Cannon were not thereby superseded. Their importance, indeed, increased, as they became lighter, more mobile and more adaptable to the battlefield. The development of the firearm - the matchlock and the later and handier flintlock musket - transformed, however, the role of the foot soldier whom the cannon had begun by supporting. The musket made the infantryman an instrument of firepower in his own right, particularly when ranked in close formation and drilled to load, aim and fire at the same moment.

The combination of gunpowder and drill proved decisive in beating back the attack of Islam, manifested in the Ottoman Empire, from the frontiers of Christian Europe during the seventeenth century. The Turkish offensive from the Eastern to the Western Mediterranean was checked by their defeat at the Siege of Malta in 1565; their amphibious power was broken at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. Thereafter, though they continued to stage a series of aggressive land campaigns in the Balkans for another century, the impetus of triumphant Islam was lost. In 1683 the Turks were defeated at the second Siege of Vienna. In 1699, by the Treaty of Carlowitz, they were, for the first time since their seizure of Constantinople in 1433, obliged to cede territory to their Christian enemies and accept Austrian dominance over Hungary, which they had controlled since the previous century.

The Habsburg triumph, deriving from Austrian mastery of the new techniques of gunpowder drill and discipline, swiftly translated into a general European offensive against the non-Christian worlds beyond the Mediterranean and Atlantic. The Spanish, during the course of the sixteenth century, had established their empire in the Americas, through the medium of gunpowder weapons, but the technological backwardness of their Aztec and Inca opponents made their victory a comparatively easy one. The real challenge to the European maritime thrust to world empire was presented when the Spanish, French, English and Dutch venturers met the power of the Moghuls in India and the Manchus in China from the end of the seventeenth century onwards.

China was to prove impervious to European penetration until the nineteenth century, as the nearby Japanese island empire would also. In India, however, and its neighbouring peninsulas and archipelagos, the Dutch, English and French established footholds during the seventeenth century, through the medium of the ocean-going warship mounting heavy cannon, and consolidated their presence by building coastal artillery forts, protecting their trading stations. In the East Indies those outposts soon grew into a Dutch maritime empire. The process took longer in the Indian sub-continent but, by the end of the eighteenth century, it had been repeated there also, most of India belonging or owing fealty to the British, who had triumphed over its decadent Moghul rulers by deploying, against their vast but ill-organized armies, small, disciplined forces of soldiers, drilled to the highest European standards. During the nineteenth century the pattern would be repeated in Africa. The French and British in particular, during the ‘scramble’ for the continent, would win victory after victory against warrior peoples whose hardihood and bravery proved of no avail, even when they possessed firearms, against European military technique.

Yet there was a paradox at the heart of the conflict between Europe and the world beyond. The power of European arms and military organization could always overcome that of their warrior enemies in any direct conflict between bodies of men in the open. European armies consistently beat Asian and African armies wherever and whenever they met on the battlefield. What the European method of warfare could not defeat, however, was the warrior spirit, even when the European armies engaged were themselves led by warrior officers and contained men of undoubted warrior quality.

The contrast between one method of warfare and another was never better exemplified than in the struggle of Europeans against natives for control of North America. ‘Red Indians’, as Europeans called them, particularly the Indians of the Great Plains, made a cult of hardihood and courage, even hopeless courage. They were admitted to full manhood in the tribe by rituals of harsh physical suffering. They sustained their reputation as men by resisting, should they fall into enemy hands, indignity and the cruellest torture to the point of death.

In the face of such irrational dedication to the warrior ideal, Europeans found only one recourse to assert their dominance, which was oppression to the point of extermination. During the period of mass settlement of the Great Plains, from 1849 to 1890, white America did indeed move from an attempt to suppress Indian resistance to the incoming of white agriculturalists to near-extermination of the native inhabitants. The programme of settlement eventually succeeded, as sheer weight of numbers determined it should. The breaking of the spirit of Native American warriordom was its necessary concomitant.

European triumphalism would meet an inevitable antithesis. Competition for empire turned Europe in upon itself. By 1910 the era of mass emigration to the New World and to Australasia was over and most of the globe, whether suitable for European settlement or not, had been appropriated by one European government or another, latterly for reasons of national prestige. The limitations of the opportunity to emigrate, when married to disputes and disappointments between governments over the acquisition of colonies, raised tempers at home, particularly between the successful colonial powers, chiefly Britain and France, and the others, particularly Germany and Austria-Hungary, which felt excluded from ‘a place in the sun’. Germany and Austria were, however, imperial powers themselves within the European continent, ruling over large minorities of Slav people who sought their own national independence. Deeply suspicious of any action by their neighbours that threatened their imperial integrity, Germany and Austria moved during the first years of the twentieth century to a state of hair-trigger military alert. It was replicated by bordering states. In July 1914 this continental military system led to general war.

The First World War, its course and its outcome, determined the nature of the rest of the century, ensuring that it would be one of almost unrelenting conflict. Defeat, costing two million lives given in vain, embittered Germany and disposed its population to heed Hitler when he promised revenge on coming to power fifteen years after the war’s end. Defeat, which gave the Bolsheviks their chance to seize power in Russia, consigned that country to terrible civil war and to a political system dedicated to ideological aggression against others. Defeat, which dismembered Austria, left its former imperial territories as unstable and quarrelsome entities in the no man’s land between Bolshevism and emergent Nazism. Defeat, which also overcame the Ottoman Empire, ended Turkish control over the volatile Arab lands, so rendering the region even more unstable than post-war Eastern Europe.

The victory won by Britain and France, at a cost in lives equivalent to that suffered by the vanquished nations, left them uncertain and enfeebled; while their co-victor, the United States, which might have fortified them in the exercise of post-war responsibility, decided after 1918 to withdraw from world affairs altogether. This combination of circumstances - disablement of the great colonial powers, embitterment of their enemies, transformation of Russia into an international malefactor, alienation of the United States from commitment - left the world ripe for upheaval. The likelihood that upheaval would be the outcome was enhanced by the emergence into independence, full, partial, or potential, of states unfitted by their experience under imperial dominance to act without narrow selfishness on the world stage.

Upheaval, as might have been predicted, was indeed the outcome. In 1939 the world descended again into general war, on an even wider scale than in 1914. The loss of life it caused was higher by far than in the First World War - fifty rather than ten million dead, the majority civilian rather than military - while the material destruction that resulted was incomparably greater. The war’s aftermath, moreover, left the makings of five decades of local wars, many on a very large scale, in China, India, the Middle East, South-East Asia and Africa. The final destruction of European imperial rule, inaugurated in 1914, released rancours and hostilities which had been kept in check for three centuries and more by maritime colonialism. Some of the ensuing wars took the form of belated conflicts between the European empires and their former subject peoples, as between the French and the Vietnamese, the French and the Algerians, the Dutch and the Indonesians or the Portuguese and the Angolans. Others broke out between colonialized peoples whom imperial government had obliged to live in mutual peace, as in the Indian sub-continent. Others again, as in China, were the result of quarrels over ideologies imported from Europe through contact with the maritime empires.

The strategies, tactics and, above all, the weapons of these wars were almost exclusively European. The Chinese Civil War, culmination of Mao Tse-tung’s twenty-year struggle against both Chiang Kai-shek and the Japanese invaders which resulted in the imposition of a form of Bolshevism on China in 1949, was fought with weapons supplied by Russia or captured indirectly from the Americans. Yet the form of warfare practised in China, later in Vietnam and later still by resistance movements in Africa, was not European at all. Europeans, over the course of two thousand years and more, since the emergence of the Greek city states, had evolved a style of conflict that achieved results by face-to-face struggle on a defined battlefield and within a narrow time-frame. The ‘battle of decision’ had come for them to define the nature of war. Over the centuries, it had served them well, creating stable states and winning empires. Unperceived, however, an alternative style of fighting had always persisted. It derived its validity from the avoidance, whenever possible, of face-to-face combat, of battle at a fixed point, and of observance of the demands of time.

This alternative form of warfare was the obverse of the ‘gentlemen’s war’ around which European civilization had organized itself since the Greeks defined its central values over two millennia ago. Gentlemanly warfare honoured courage in combat to the point of death itself, but also honoured respect for the vanquished and execrated cruelty towards the captured. It deprecated deceit, cunning, expediency and anything that smacked of cowardice, however conducive to eventual victory. Alternative warfare observed no such inhibitions. It could require extraordinary courage of those who fell into the hands of the enemy, resistance to torture in the name of warrior honour, death by ritual combat as cultural custom. It placed, however, no particular virtue on the fight to the death, as, for political and communal reasons, Western warriordom did.

This anthology has been designed to exemplify these contrasting military traditions. Many who read it will understandably be horrified by the record of inhumanity that the testimonies from the non-European world depict. The history of all forms of warfare is, however, essentially inhumane. That should be the message of this collection of warrior words from the European and non-European worlds.


January 1999

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