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The Age of Gunpowder

It was not until the close of the Middle Ages that military science, having slept for centuries, awoke to the possibilities of greater perfection in armament as well as in discipline. The weapons that were to change the whole aspect of the battlefield and introduce a new era of warfare were fire-armsgreat and small cannon and musketry.

Gunpowder was known long before the English friar Roger Bacon and the German monk Berthold Schwartz made their successful experiments with "villainous saltpetre," and it was first used in more than one country and with many varieties of composition, not indeed for sending bullets and balls flying through the air, but for mere fireworks, and later as an incendiary substance. Long before Europe knew it, the Chinese lovers of resounding noise used it in crackers and squibs, perhaps in rockets, and after having learned its capacities for firework displays, passed by an easy transition to the flinging of "wildfire" among an enemy's ranks or on to his roofs and stockades. The "Greek fire," secretly prepared in Byzantine arsenals, had gunpowder for one of its constituents.

Cannon first played a part in the siege operations of Moor and Christian in the Spain of the thirteenth century, the Christians learning the trick from their enemies. In the next century the knowledge of the new invention spread through Western Europe, the cannon with their stone balls being used at first only in siege operations. For centuries there was a kind of freemasonry among the gunners. They had, or pretended to have, secrets, which they imparted to their pupils only under solemn oaths of fidelity to the craft. There were no privates among the gunners in those good old times. They were all officers with exceptional rates of pay, and as there were not many of them they could easily keep up their prices. When cannon were costly to obtain and extremely difficult to transport and work in the field there were very few with an army, and each had its own name.

During a transition period fire-arms were gradually found their way into the armies of the fifteenth century, battles in which lumbering cannon fired a few shots at the outset, like the Austrian guns on the still earlier field of Sempach, and then small bodies of musketeers fought beside the archers, or a mounted man startled his opponents by drawing and banging off a huge horse-pistol in the midst of the melee.

The strength of the Spanish armies depended on their tercios or regiments of disciplined pikemen and musketeers. The two arms were combined in the tercio. Its full strength would be from 2000 to 3000 men, of whom two-thirds would be pikemen and the rest musketeers. Fire effect was still regarded as something secondary and auxiliary in battle. The Spaniards spoke of the pike as "the queen of the battlefield." In the attack he advanced in a massive column like the men of the Greek phalanx or the Swiss confederates. The musketeers were sometimes used on the flanks of the advance to keep down hostile fire and shake the opposing infantry. But it was the shock of the bristling pikes that decided the business.

Steady infantry with the twelve or fifteen-foot pike could defy the best lance-armed horsemen to break them, and the cavalry leader found in new weapons the suggestion of a more effective plan of attack. The firearm of the mounted man was a heavy pistol, almost a carbine, known as a poitrinal, or petronel, because it was fired with the hand propped against the breast. The carbine proper came somewhat later. The lance was laid aside and the pistol took its place. But by the end of the sixteenth century the lance was being abandoned throughout Western Europe.

By Gustavus Adolphus, "the father of the modern art of war," as he is called by Col. Dodge, his biographer, the new weapon was accepted at its true worth, and, arming his corps with them he evolved the then original plan of preparing an attack with artillery. Gustavus realized the importance of fire as opposed to shock tactics for infantry. He had the open mind that welcomes mechanical improvements. He set his armourers to work to lighten the musket so as to make it a more handy weapon and to dispense with the clumsy rest. He substituted the use of cartridges for the powder horn as a safer and more rapid method of loading. Finally, he did away with the matchlock and adopted the wheel-lock musket. The adoption of the musket, however, was not the only development in warfare that may be traced to this great strategist, for it was he who first substituted the line for the mass formation, one of the greatest innovations in modern tactics.

The normal battle array of the Thirty Years' War and of a century and a half after it had dragged to its end was a mass of cavalry forming each of the wings of the army, with the infantry in the centre. Most of the generals of the time regarded the infantry as a support for the horse, a solid wall behind which it could rally if there was any mishap. The main event of the battle was the cavalry charge. Cavalry as the mobile arm was thus the only means of threatening or attacking the flank of the battle line, and it was thus still so important, notwithstanding the growing power of infantry, that the general who commanded in chief, instead of directing the battle from a central point under the protection of his infantry, frequently took personal command of one of the wings.

Neither his opponents nor his allies learned much from the methods of Gustavus. They clung to the old ways. The chief change in the armies of the later years of the Thirty Years' War was the gradual adoption of the wheellock and the still better flintlock musket. There was a monotonous sameness about the battles. The same array of pikes and muskets in the centre and horse on the wings, the same direct clashing together of the opposing lines with little attempt at manoeuvre beyond the occasional attack on the flank of the infantry by cavalry that had routed its immediate opponents. The war slowly dragged to an end after it had ruined Germany for years to come. The armies, chiefly composed of mere mercenary troops, were as formidable to friends as foes. They ate up every district in which they marched and fought, and destroyed more than they used.

With the change in armament and tactics and the growing importance of drill and regular training the dividing line between the professional soldier and the temporarily armed townsman or peasant became more and more marked. The invention of gunpowder had far-reaching effects on the development of political and social conditions. It was no inconsiderable factor in the breaking up of the internal balance of power in the countries of the Continent as it existed in medieval times. With the coming of the professional soldier kings began to form small standing armies. These were often largely composed of mercenary troops temporarily engaged to deal with a crisis or assist in a single campaign. Against the trained professional soldier the feudal levy of a district or a peasant rising was all but helpless. With artillery ready to batter down the old defences a baron could no longer hold his castle or a walled town close its gates against a king. The improvement of fire-arms and the growth of absolutism in government were parallel developments of the sixteenth century.

In 1625, in the very midst of the Thirty Years' War, Hugo Grotius published his immortal work, De Jure Belli et Pads, at once a protest and a guide, in which he outlined the permissible and the infamous with a firm and masterly touch. Basing himself on the Scriptures, the principles of morality, and a supposed law of nature, he subjected the history of warfare to a careful examination, separated humane from ferocious precedents, and digested in an incomplete but admirable way the principles to be derived from their study. The weight of his influence gave to the result something of the consistency and the authority of a code. "The effects of the De Jure Belli et Pacts," continues Maine, "both in respect of its general influence and of the detailed propositions which it laid down, were exceedingly prompt and have proved extremely durable.

At about the middle of his reign [r. 1643-1715] Louis XIV of France adopted two measures by which he was thought to have carried the severity of war to the furthest point. He devastated the Palatinate, expressly directing his officers to carry fire and sword into every corner of the province, and he issued a notice to the Dutch, with whom he was at war, that, as soon as the melting of the ice opened the canals, he would grant no more quarter to his Dutch enemies. The devastation of the Palatinate has become a proverb of savageness with all historians, though 50 years earlier it might at most have been passed as a measure of severity, or might even have been defended; but the proclamation to the Dutch called forth a burst of execration from all Europe, and the threat to refuse quarter was not acted upon. The book of Grotius was making itself felt, and the successors of Grotius assert that it was his authority which deterred the French King and the French generals from the threatened outrage.

In the wars of the seventeenth century it would have been impossible to command, move and feed the vast armies of to-day. Relatively small forces, chiefly composed of men who made soldiering the business of their lives, were marched by the few roads available to attack one or more of the elaborately fortified towns that formed units in the enemy's frontier barrier. The reduction of even one of these fortresses would often be considered sufficient result for a whole campaign. While one corps carried on the siege, the rest of the army would take up a position to protect the operation by keeping off any relieving force. The object in view was not the destruction of the enemy's mobile forces, but the piecemeal occupation of his territory. Battles were fought to maintain a siege or to compel an enemy to abandon it.

Operations in the depth of winter were regarded as almost impossible and were rarely attempted. This was not because the men of the day were wanting in endurance, but because most of the roads became pathless quagmires after the first rains, and the movement of supply columns was out of the question, even if armies could have marched with their cumbrous trains of artillery. Beyond the fact that it increased the general taxation, war affected only certain districts and a limited number of men. If success made the enemy's territory the scene of the operations, the victorious country did not greatly feel the strain of war during its first years. At the end of the autumn there was a tacit truce. The opposing armies went into cantonments in towns and villages, or were housed in standing camps of huts. Generals, officers and "gentlemen volunteers" of rank obtained leave of absence and spent the winter at court or in their homes.

When pitched battles were fought it was nearly always on a stereotyped plan. The forces engaged were not large. The general in command of an army in battle array could see the whole of his line and send orders to any part of it by a galloper in a few minutes. At the same time he could see the whole array of the forces opposed to him, and the distance between the hostile lines was so small that the unaided eye could distinguish the uniforms of the various regiments and even identify individuals. The cavalry was much more numerous in comparison with the infantry.

The armies of the sixteenth century, and above all the armies of the Grand Monarque in the days of Conde and Turenne, Villeroi and Villars, were set in battle array with a profusion of color and decorative display such as is now not to be seen even at a ceremonial review on some great occasion in the times of peace. The officer's dress was almost a Court costume. Generals and cavalry officers still wore the bright steel cuirass. The various regiments wore elaborate uniforms with a great variety of colour. In the French army many of the infantry regiments wore the special colours of the provinces to which they belonged. A French battle line showed a considerable number of redcoated battalions and squadrons, for all the foreign regiments in the royal army of France were clothed in red, with distinctive facings.

King Frederick William I of Prussia was a prudent, hard-fisted ruler with two ambitions to accumulate a large reserve fund for his exchequer, and to form a perfectly drilled standing army of considerable strength. At his death in 1740 he left his son a treasure of 9,000,000 thalers in coined money and an army of 80,000 men, said to be the best drilled and disciplined in the world at the time. Its numbers were out of all proportion to the extent of his disjointed kingdom. Prussia ranked twelfth in Europe measured by the area and population of her territory, but held the fourth place in military power.

But this military power was untested in the field. Frederick William's ambitions did not go beyond the parade ground. He was a crowned sergeant-major rejoicing in drilling and inspecting his thousands of handsomely uniformed soldiers. His greatest delight was to review his regiment of giant grenadiers. None of them were under six feet high. Some of them were seven-footers. They were recruited from every country in Europe, from Russia to Ireland, sometimes honestly hired for the King's service, sometimes kidnapped by unscrupulous agents. Many of them were tall men of feeble constitution, and the show regiment had very little military value.

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Page last modified: 13-09-2012 19:13:15 ZULU