Thursday, May 23, 2013

Soulful Soldiers

Dear Reader,

In the modern world, we associate soldiers and militarism with brutality, violence, and masculinity, (and by connection perhaps-stupidity.) Often, we read this stereotype into the past. As far as eighteenth century warfare is concerned reading the present into the past is a severe problem in historical thinking. Christopher Duffy addresses this issue in his excellent book, Military Experience in the Age of Reason. 

As much as modern literature and fiction might attempt to present the past accurately, this is a task for trained and professional historians. A perfect example of this is the excellent web-comic Family Man, by brilliant writer and artist Dylan Meconis. Meconis gives an excellent representation of Central Europe in the 1760s, (if you ignore the occasional vampire or werewolf) down to rabbit and wolf hunting with a Jägerbüsche. However, her detailed representation as just that, a representation. 

In order to be truly "historical," a work of non-fiction needs to draw on the writing of individuals who lived during that time, and other evidence remaining from the past. Returning to the premise of this article, some 18th century soldiers were certainly brutal, pipeclayed, villainous men, who raped, stole and murdered throughout Europe. However, many of the soldiers of the 18th century were not this type of man. Some were Seelenmensch- Soulful men. This was exceedingly evident in the Prussian army. Frederick the Great, for all his spikeness, was a man of great sensitivity and feeling. On the death of his general Hans Karl von Winterfeldt, he remarked, "He was a good man: a soulful man. He was my friend." 

How do we know that 18th century soldiers were soulful, you ask? Their writings. Many soldiers from 18th left behind a plethora of writings on military matters, but some also left poetry about their personal lives. These soldiers played music, wrote poetry, and attempted to bring culture into their world of death. Here is a selection of poetry from eighteenth century soldiers:

Miniatures of Hessian Soldiers

The first poem is by Johann Heinnrich Ludewig Grotehenen, a soldier who served in the Western German army during the Seven Years' War, under the command of Ferdinand of Brunswick

Ein Soldate bin Ich eben
I was only a soldier,
und steh vor meinen feind.
and stood before my enemy
In freud und lied muss leben
I must live in joy and song,
wie mirs gott Hat bereit
How God has prepared me!
und wenn ich stehe in feld
For when I stand in the field
und lieg in meinen zelt
and lie in my tent
Hab ich mich gott befohlen
Have I myself instructed God?
Er mags wie es ihm gefält
He makes things how he pleases.

The second is a selection from the 1759 Quebec campaign, by an anonymous author.  It describes the death of General Wolfe. The author here spells it Wolf.

The British at Quebec
The first part of the poem describes a young man who enlists because he is heart broken. The second part begins:

Then this brave youth took to the ocean,
to free America from those invasions;
He landed at Quebec, with his party,
to attack the city, being brave and hearty.

Wolf drew up his men in a line, so pretty,
On the plains of Abraham, before the city.
A distance from the town, the French did meet him.
With double numbers, they resolve{d} to beat him.

The French drew up their men: for death prepared.
In one another's face, they flood and flared.
Whilst Wolf and Montcalm together walked.
Betwixt their armies: they like brothers talked.

Then each took his place, 'twas of attire.
And then this numerous host began their fire.
Suddenly from his horse fell this brave hero,
You may lament his loss in fields of sorrow.

The French began to break their ranks and flying,
Wolf seemed to revive whilst he lay a dying--
He raised up his head, where the cannons rattle,
and to his army said: how goes the battle?

His aid-de-camp reply'd: 'tis in our favor.
Quebec and all her pride, nothing can save her.
She falls into our hands, with all her treasure.
O, reply'd brave Wolf: I die with pleasure.

Thanks for reading,

Alex Burns

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Thursday, May 16, 2013

Who was the Best?

The Battle of Zorndorf
Dear Reader,

For centuries, military historians had only one task: identify who won, who gained the most honor, and who was the best. If they were good military historians, they would also explain why this was the case. Fortunately, with the advent of the New Military History, historians have begun to examine other factors, such as social, religious, and economic factors relating to war. However, many non-academic readers are still very much concerned with the question, "who was the best?" or, "why were they the best?" This search for military exceptionalism would make my professors a bit queasy, not doubt, but its a Thursday, I'm tired after a long couple of weeks on the road, (researching New Military History type topics in Washington DC,) and my brain could use a fun and engaging break.

So, of the armies of the eighteenth century, who was the best?
Feel free to reference this map while reading

Let's identify some states who were obviously not the best:

Despite a resurgence of military effectiveness in the late eighteenth century (during the American War of Independence) Spain made a poor showing in most of the other eighteenth century wars. The fine military traditions which had been upheld during the Reconquista and the expansion into central america had been lost over the course of the 17th century. As Dr. Duffy argues in his book, Military Experience in the Age of Reason, most of Spain's battlefield achievements were brought about by units consisting of non-spaniards, such as the Irish or Walloon regiments.

The Republic of the Netherlands:

Much like Sweden after the Great Northern War, the Netherlands went into a long slow decline after the War of Spanish Succession in the 1710s. Despite limited naval success, they were never a serious military contender. They were one of the few anti-British powers to suffer in the global eight years war surrounding the American War of Independence.


The Danes never really got off the ground as a power in the eighteenth century. After their failure to reclaim Skåne from Sweden during the Scanian War, they were repeatedly and soundly beaten by the Swedes again in the Great Northern War. After the thrashing they received in the Great Northern War, the Danes remained at peace for the rest of the eighteenth century. War briefly threatened again in 1762, when the mad Tsar Peter III declared war on Denmark. Fortunately for the Danes, he was assassinated before the war truly began.


Poland had the extreme misfortune to be a dis-unified state surrounded by larger, predatory powers. Despite excellent cavalry potential, the Polish state was slowly devoured by Russia, Austria and Prussia, until its revival by Napoleon in the early nineteenth century. Thaddeus Kosciuszko made a brave attempt at a war of independence in 1794, but this was crushed by the Russian army under Suvorov.

Despite a good showing in the early eighteenth century, after the War of Austrian Succession, Bavaria fell off the map. The Bavarians never really displayed a great talent for warfare, but as a result of their alliances with the French, they were able to capitalize on the relative weakness of the Austrians during the War of Austrian Succession.

Saxony had the singular misfortune of standing in-between Prussia and Austria during the course of the eighteenth century. The Saxon military never performed exceptionally, and was snapped up wholesale by the Prussians at the outset of the Seven Years' War. A number expat regiments fought in Austrian service during the war, but they were unable to prevent the occupation and despoilation of their homeland.

The United States: 

This fledgling nation made a poor military showing in the American War of Independence, and lost many major battlefield encounters. While the Americans showed a talent for light infantry work, they lacked the staying power required to "play the big boys" of European field armies. One of the reasons the Americans were able to achieve the success they did was the relative ineffectiveness of cavalry in North America. If the Americans were placed in Europe, against a traditional European field army, they would have quickly folded in the face of superior combined arms tactics.

Now, some states who fall in the middle of the pack: 

Ahhh Sverige. The noble Swedes made an excellent showing in the Great Northern War, but were overwhelmed through a mixture of opposing forces, and the tactical blunders of their King at Poltava. If we were only examining the period from 1700-1721, the Swedes would far and away win this line-up. Their cavalry and infantry were absolutely exceptional at shock attacks, despite being outnumbered in every battle. The infantry also showed an excellent ability fight with firepower in the later war. However, after the defeats in the Great Northern War, the Swedes went into a long slow decline. They did not recover until the late 1780s, when they won several battles against the Russians, delaying the loss of Finland for another decade. This early panache combined with late recovery places them in the middle of the pack.


The French saved the Americans during the American War of Independence, they effectively reformed their army halfway through the Seven Years' War, and they were truly terrifying opponents during the War of Spanish Succession and French Revolutionary Wars. Sadly, they were soundly defeated by the British in the  Seven Years' War. The French focus on continental Europe forced the loss of the colonies in North America, for no discernible European trade-off. Despite their strategic short comings, the French were formidable on the battlefield, possessing excellent cavalry, infantry with a penchant for shock action, and by the late eighteenth century a formidable artillery train.


The British possessed excellent infantry, but fair to middling cavalry and artillery. I know this placement will shock some of you, but Britain did not have a spectacular military record in the 18th century. They fought the French tooth and nail in the western Seven Years' War, but most of their spectacular victories occurred on sea, not on land. The Battle of Minden was a spectacular field victory, but those who remember Minden and Quebec should also keep in mind Fontenoy, Roucox, and Lauffeld. One of the sticky facts of British success in the eighteenth century is that the British only succeeded in North America because they were tying down the French on the continent, and they only were able to tie down the French on the continent through German help. The fact of the matter is, that in every great European battle which the British won, the actual British forces made up a minority of overall army, German soldiers from various states were in the majority. This is not suggesting that the British were poor soldiers in any way, merely that they always had help.

Western Germans (Hanover, Brunswick, Hesse-Kassel):

The unsung heroes of the eighteenth century. These troops were responsible for many of the "British" victories of the eighteenth century. During the Seven Years' War, these troops made up the majority of the army opposing the French in western Germany. Brunswick and Hesse-Kassel would go on to lend forces to Britain during the Seven Years' War. While most American readers remember the Battle at Trenton during the American War of Independence, where the Hessians were surprised and captured, their were a number of battles where the Germans saved the British or won on their own, including:  Fort Washington, Hubbardton, and Freeman's Farm. Thus, a large portion of the credit for British battlefield success in the eighteenth century needs to be given to Britain's German allies.

The Top Three: 

And the number 3 spot goes to: 


Austria gets the number three spot for most improvement during the course of the eighteenth century. Christopher Duffy's massive two volume work on the Austrian military charts the difficult process of restoring the army to a place of prominence. By the end of the Seven Years' War, the Austrian army had built up respectable infantry, good cavalry, and exceptional artillery forces. They would recover from their defeat in the War of Austrian Succession, and give the Prussians a run for their money in the Seven Years' War. By the War of Bavarian Succession, it was obvious that the Prussians could no longer compete with the Austrians. Austria would go on to play a pivotal role in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, and lead the way in continually opposing Napoleon.

and the number 2 spot goes to:


And the crowd goes wild!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! In all seriousness, Prussia's meteoric rise from relative obscurity to a European great power was achieved by the Prussian army. The War of Austrian Succession gain Prussia the attention of the European powers, and the Seven Years' War assured that it was there to stay. Prussia possessed the best infantry of the eighteenth century, good cavalry, and good artillery, (at least in terms of attached guns.) The Prussian military was acknowledged by most military authorities as being the best in Europe. Oh- Frederick the Great helped a little too.

then who could be number 1??? 


Russia had everything required for eighteenth century success: stalwart, tenacious infantry, excellent heavy cavalry (and light cavalry in the form of Cossacks), as well as an impressive artillery arm. Throughout the course of the eighteenth century, the Russians proved almost impossible to defeat on the battlefield. Frederick the Great was certainly never able to soundly beat them. As far as generals, Peter the Great was not spectacular, but Suvorov and Bagration were both sound military men. Russia's true genius was the ability to build a spectacular military tradition Ex Nihlo. The modern Russian military was formed in the lifetime of Peter the Great. The Russian armies instant success (despite the lack of a prior military western military tradition) give it the right to claim the number 1 spot in our line-up.

Do you agree? Who do you think had the best 18th century army?

Thanks for reading

Alex Burns

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Book Review: The Best of Enemies

(cover art from the book)

Dear Reader,

(Sorry for the long absence, I've been in Washington DC doing research for my MA program!)

Book Review of:

Christopher Duffy, The Best of Enemies: Germans vs. Jacobites, 1746. Emperor's Press,
          Bitter Books, (Chicago and London) 2013.

Most Americans remember the Hessians from their time in grade school. These are the soldiers which American general George Washington crossed the the Delaware to surprise at the Battle of Trenton on the day after Christmas, 1776. In his latest book, Dr. Christopher Duffy examines these soldiers in a different context: the '45, the final major Jacobite uprising in Britain  Much like in the American War of Independence, the German state of Hesse-Kassel hired its soldiers as subsidized allies (subsidientruppen) to the British. These Hessians assisted the British (and their Hanoverian monarch, George II) in suppressing this rebellion in the eighteenth century.

In this small, though informative, book, Duffy manages to give a campaign history of the Germans in the '45 uprising, as well as examine the life of Hessian Prince Frederick II in a book which, at times, reads as a mini-biography. Duffy lends a sympathetic voice to Frederick II of Hesse-Kassel, and attempts to show that this monarch had admirable qualities. Duffy's work touches on the history of the Hessian military from the turn of the eighteenth century to the American War of Independence. However, in order to get the full story of the Hessians in the American War of Independence (which is outside the scope of Duffy's work), this book should be read in tandem with Rodney Atwood's The Hessians. 

 For readers familiar with the American War of Independence, many familiar names crop up in the text, as we see future Hessian leaders. Duffy's thesis is that the Germans were more humane than their British counterparts, and kept clear of the worst of the atrocities following the Battle of Culloden. He amply proves his thesis, and this provides an interesting counterpoint to the supposed atrocities of the German troops during the American War of Independence.

As usual, Duffy writes in an engaging and often humorous style. His prose is easy to understand, even for those who do not understand all of the technicalities of eighteenth century warfare. He provides a full bibliography, which is clearly laid out. Overall, the only major flaw in this book is it's length: it leaves the reader wishing for more! Dr. Duffy has once again proved that military history and serious scholarship go hand in hand.

 The book is being published and sold by John Brewster over at Bitter Books, with assistance by Emperor's Press. If you would like to purchase the book directly, here is a link to Bitter Books.  For British readers, the book is a fascinating examination of a pivotal event in the history of Britain. For American readers, the book gives an important comparison to the experiences of the American War of Independence. For any serious student of the Jacobite Rebellions or American War of Independence, this book is a must have.

Thanks for reading,

Alex Burns

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