Outline of warfare in 17th century Western Europe

Originally prepared for Clann Tartan in 2011. Replaced some dead links for this version.

  1. Background(1): the late Middle Ages
    1. Innovations in the late Middle Ages
      1. Swiss pike — defensive and offensive
      2. The English longbow
      3. Artillery
    2. Consequences
      1. Mounted knight no longer dominates the battlefield — Burgundian wars
      2. Castles and old style city walls no longer adequate defense
        1. Fall of Constantinople in 1453
        2. English evicted from Normandy about the same time
        3. About 70 years of artillery dominance over Fortification followed.
    3. Reference: A History of the Art of War in the Middle Ages: 1278-1485 AD
  2. Background(2): The Renaissance
    1. New fortifications: “The engineer’s revenge on the gunner”
      1. Low, thick walls. Partly or totally dirt.
      2. Infantry firearms prevented a direct assault.
      3. Very expensive
      4. By the 1530’s warfare in Italy was dominated by sieges. No army dared
        bypass a large fortress.
      5. Similarly in the Netherlands by the 1570’s. These regions saw a lot of war and were rich.
      6. Few modern fortifications in England, since there was not much internal conflict until the Civil wars. Hence those had a lot of battles.
      7. Germany was somewhere in between. Hence more battles in the 30 Years war than in the 80 years war.
    2. Battlefield changes
      1. Infantry firearms replaced crossbow and longbow as standard weapons, even in England. Archers as significant military force disappeared from most of Western Europe, though retained in the East and in the Scottish Highlands.
      2. Early 1500’s had a lot of experimentation with infantry, e.g. sword and buckler. By mid century settling on pike and shot.
    3. Military innovation. Often driven by monarchs who were “gun nuts” — they loved the new technology. Old style nobles disliked the newer weapons, but the kings of the age were trying to rein in the aristocrats, Rise of absolutism. Gustavus very much in this mold.
    4. Revival of classical knowledge–looking at Roman legions as model
    5. Mathematical formulae and tables for deploying soldiers.
    6. References
  3. Characteristics of warfare c. 1630
    1. Trench warfare. Firearms behind a trench stop pikemen — Bicocca (1522).
      Gustavus used this in his Polish wars. In Germany the Swedes tended to take
      the offensive, and the Imperialist dug in against them. Alte Veste(1632), Nördlingen(1634).
    2. Combined arms–no single dominant arm:
      1. The best infantry, with pike and shot, could generally stop any cavalry force.
      2. Artillery and cavalry stop pikemen — Marignano(1515).
      3. Cavalry and infantry can beat Infantry alone — Marston
    3. Battle formations were much more complicated and subtle than in the Middle

      1. Instead of three large masses of men, multiple lines with reserves. He who uses his last reserve last wins–a very Roman concept.
      2. Infantry in the center, cavalry on flanks or in reserve. Some minor variations, e.g. G.A.’s “commanded shot”.
      3. Checkerboard patterns. Gaps in 1st line can be filled by units in 2nd. Gaps allow units to advance and retreat without disordering other formations. Consider Kinsale(1601).
      4. Unit formations (with both pike and shot in each unit) shrank as time went on. Spanish Tercios to Maurice of Nassau‘s smaller battalions, which were copied by Gustavus.
      5. Increased emphasis on firepower. Gustavus loved his guns of all sizes.
      6. Field artillery was great to have, but roads were poor. Big incentive to develop lighter guns.
    4. Sieges–usually end with a negotiated surrender
    5. Logistics
      1. Living off the land–hard on the civilians of either side.
      2. Varying degrees of legal cover
      3. “Contributions” from allies. Sweden was a poor country, and the wars were intended to support themselves
    6. Strategy of maneuver and dig in. So the only way you can be attacked is in a way that is suicidal for the attacker.

      1. Fewer battles this way. Some generals, e.g. Wallenstein,
        liked that.
      2. You have to be sure this is the only way you can be attacked. If the enemy can find an unguarded flank you have to change position in a hurry. If that happened you were in trouble. Flodden(1513), Wittstock(1636).
      3. A further refinement as the war went on. Maneuver and dig in so the enemy’s choice are between attacking your trenches or retreating into territory that has already been devastated, i.e. starve.
      4. Strategy became as much a matter of finding food as fighting the
        enemy–so much of Germany had been stripped of food.
    7. With all of this commanding an army was a sophisticated business. The General needed to be much more than a bold leader of knights.
    8. References