Military Revolution in Early Modern Period
Military Revolution in Early Modern Period

Military Revolution in Early Modern Period

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  • Pages: 6 (1438 words)
  • Published: December 26, 2017
  • Type: Research Paper
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There has been a long-standing debate into whether there was a military revolution during the early modern period, and when such a revolution took place. The New Oxford Dictionary vol. 2 (1976) describes a revolution as, "a complete change or fundamental reconstruction, through forcible substitution by subjects of a new ruler or polity for the old" [1]. From this, it may suggest that, a revolution would be a significant, noticeable change over a short period of time.It would seem appropriate to look at various sources available to answer whether such changes that took place during the period in question could be defined as 'revolutionary'. Geoffrey Parker states "The early modern period has come to be seen as a time of major change in warfare and military organisation, as an era of 'military revolution'" [2].

The concept that a military revolution


occurred in the early modern period, specifically in the period 1500-1660, was considered an established part of the curriculum for historians studying the early modern period in Britain.It is based on a published lecture by Michael Roberts, delivered in 1955. This drew essentially on his detailed studies of early 17th century Sweden, and in particular the reign of Gustavus Adolphus (1611-32) and on Sweden's entry in 1630 into the Thirty Years War (1618-48) in which involved a large part of the Holy Roman Empire [3]. The idea may have made the developments of the following century (1660-1760) seem far less important.Roberts' Thesis may, therefore, be related to the generally dominant view taken by historians studying early European history, the view that sees a resolution of earlier crises culminating in a supposed mid-seventeenth century crisis, followed,

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after by relative stability within states and limited wars between them [4].

This supposed revolution has been used to explain this period of stability and defined in terms of authority and power of centralising monarchies.The essentials of Roberts' work are of a sustained relationship between the professionalism required for the tactical changes and the rise of larger and more permanent state military forces. Roberts stated that changes in tactics, strategy, the scale of warfare and its impact upon society, which had its origins in the United Provinces (now Holland) at the end of the 16th century and culminated in Sweden under the rule of Gustavus Adolphus deserved the description 'revolutionary' [5]. Geoffrey Parker summarised the Roberts' thesis: "First came a 'revolution in tactics'; the replacement of the lance and pike by the arrow and musket..

.Associated with this development were a marked growth in army size across Europe, and the adoption of more ambitious and complex strategies designed to bring these larger armies into action...

Roberts' military revolution dramatically accentuated the impact of war on society: the greater costs incurred, the greater damage inflicted, and the greater administrative challenge posed by the augmented armies made waging war far more of a burden and more of a problem than ever previously, both for the civilian population and for their rulers"[6]Tactical changes pioneered by the Dutch army were essential to Roberts' theory. The rise in infantry firepower in the 16th century led Count Maurice of Nassau (1567-1625), who assumed military leadership of the Dutch revolt against Spain, to introduce shallower troop formations that allowed more soldiers to fire at once; he argued that six rotating ranks of musketeers

could maintain continuous fire. To maximise the effect of this; a broader battle formation was needed. At first ten ranks were needed for constant fire, but Gustavus Adolphus, who was greatly influenced by nly six ranks to maintain constant fire. Gustavus also stressed the importance of attack, whereas the Dutch would use the tactic in defensive counter marches, Adolphus employed these tactics offensively, with the ranks moving forward past their stationary re-loaders. The effectiveness of the Swedish army was demonstrated at the battle of Breitenfeld in 1631, in which the Imperial army under Tilly, which had previously be a successful army, was defeated by the Swedish troops, even after their Saxon allies had fled.

Firing by rank brought about the need for improved training and discipline and this led to an increase in the number of officers and the production of detailed training manuals. More complex manoeuvres required more training and discipline that could be best ensured by creating and maintaining permanent force, rather than the previous way of hastily hiring men at the outbreak of wars. The new armies turned infantry firepower into a manoeuvrable battle winner, allowing rulers to undertake successful campaigns.This increased the value of these larger armies rather than of fortifications, but they also brought a substantial increase in the administration and cost of maintaining them, that led to the institutionalisation of the army to keep control and meet the larger financial demands. The outcome brought about, in the short term, decisive military success by the Swedish army led by Gustavus Adolphus, finally reversing the stream of tactical victories of the Austrian Habsburg Empire and their allies in the Thirty Years War.


the long term, the creation of these large armies was to be used as an effective form of statecraft, both internally and against other states. This was to assist the development of absolute monarchies by shifting the balance of power towards sovereigns and away from their subjects. A contribution to the debate of a military revolution has come from Geoffrey Parker's work on Spain. Parker used his detailed knowledge of the dominant army in western Europe, a force that Roberts considered to be conservative, to suggest that it was the Spanish who were as equally progressive as the Dutch and Swedes.

He argues that the Spanish were as flexible in infantry and cavalry tactics and training [7], Parker believes that the revolution began back in the 15th century when there was the need for reform as the introduction of gunpowder weapons required a change in fortifications and battlefield tactics. Cannon balls could bring down the old tall, thin walls. Stronger defences and new castle designs, such as lower walls that were strengthened with earth, were introduced. Parker adds: "the improvements in artillery in the 15th century, both qualitative and quantitative, eventually transformed fortress design...

.The increasing reliance on firepower in battle - whether with archers, field artillery or musketeers - led not only to the eclipse of cavalry in most armies, but to new tactical arrangements that maximised the opportunities of giving fire...

accompanied by a dramatic increase in army size... whether in army size, fortifications or firearms come from the lands of the Habsburgs or of their neighbours: from Spain, Italy, the Netherlands and France. That was the heartland of the military revolution.

"[8]Although Parker has

explained his view of when the military revolution began, he is unclear when it ended. However, he has argued not only as Roberts did, that the military changes played a significant role in both states and societies, but also that they were instrumental in shifting the balance of power away from Asia and towards Europe. Parker adds that the major Asian powers were not defeated, largely due to their independent military developments [9], which may seem as an argument against any outside states, who continued to adapt their own effective tactics.It is possible that the major changes that did occur were concentrated in the century after the one that is normally associated with the revolution.

Roberts' Thesis seems to minimise the role of change in earlier centuries. It could also be argued that Roberts emphasised the change in battlefield tactics and did not look into some other aspects of military activity. Jeremy Black, another contributor to this great debate, has outlined the principal changes in 1660-1720 as both qualitative and quantitative [10].The substitution of the pike by the newly developed bayonet, the pre-packed cartridge and creation of the flintlock, which replaced the matchlock musket and substitution of the pike, increased the firepower and manoeuvrability.

It also led to a decline in the relative importance of cavalry in most European armies. Navies provided some of the best indicators of change in the period 1660-1720. The developments of line-ahead tactics greatly altered naval warfare, not only tactically but also by increasing the importance of heavily gunned ships, and thus of the states able to deploy and maintain these large numbers of ships.The English fleet used this Dutch

pioneered formation and in 1639 at the Downs, the first attack in line-ahead was ordered in European waters. Also, there were significant developments in the size of navies.

Advanced shipbuilding techniques were followed, thus larger 'standing navies' were a new feature of the late 17th century. Similarly, larger standing armies developed after the century Roberts describes as the time of the 'military revolution'.

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