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 Sk√•ne 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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  1. Nice analysis. On the whole I agree with your placements, except (of course) for America. ;)

    I grant that our army would have rapidly fallen before the foe in a traditional European battle -- but our army wasn't fighting in Europe, and an effective military needs to be able to fight according to its own strengths, the enemy's weaknesses, and the political and geographic features surrounding the conflict. America clearly outclassed the British army when it came to fighting with that sort of adaptability.

    I'd also say a main reason English soldiers were always a minority in the overall armies in which great victories were won was probably because of England's relatively low population and, by that time, an entrenched love of peace. If their army had had more recruits, I daresay they would have achieved much more on their own.

  2. Matthew- Thanks for the comment!

    I definitely agree that an army needs to be able to fight to its strengths- and the Americans did this quite well. As far as the British army in North America (and Europe) is concerned, you should check out the book, "With Zeal and With Bayonets Only," my Dr. Matthew Spring. While you might call this revisionist history, the book is well grounded on the writings and recollections of individuals who were there. I personally know the author, and have corresponded with him at length. I think you might be surprised by some of his findings.

    The reason I put the American's and British low, is that for whatever reason, (low population density, or relative military inexperience) they achieved victory through clever use of allies. In the case of the British, they used contingents to bolster their numbers. In the case of the Americans, they used the French and Spanish armies (and navies) to defeat the British. The battle of Yorktown (our most spectacular defeat of the British) could not have been achieved without the support of French artillery and the French navy.

    Again thanks for the comments!