Previous page Page 8 of 8  
List of subjects |  Sources |  Feedback 

Share |

Discover in a free
daily email today's famous
history and birthdays

Enjoy the Famous Daily

The Spanish tercio: 16th century

In the 16th century, when Spain is indisputably the strongest power in Europe, Spanish commanders develop a tactic which successfully asserts their dominance on the field of battle. Spanish armies are organized into large bodies of up to 3000 men, known as a tercio (roughly equivalent to a regiment).

Half of the men in each tercio are pikemen, who go into battle in a solid rectangle as many as 30 ranks deep (a tradition of solidarity on the field going all the way back to the Greek phalanx). The other half are arquebusiers, firing the arquebus (the predecessor of the musket) which takes a considerable time to reload

The arquebusiers are grouped to each side of the phalanx of pikemen. Those in the front row fire their weapons, then withdraw to the back to reload.

This forceful combination becomes known as the Spanish square. It proves particularly effective in campaigns against the Dutch in the late 16th century. But Maurice of Nassau demonstrates that greater flexibility on the field can shake the ponderous Spanish square; he defeats the Spanish at Nieuwpoort in 1600 by deploying his men in smaller squares with space between them, as pioneered by the Romans against the Greek phalanx. Thirty years later the virtues of flexibility are proved even more conclusively by Gustavus II of Sweden.

Swedish tactics: 1631

During the early years of his reign Gustavus II has effected a quiet revolution in the Swedish army. Where other monarchs rely on foreign mercenaries, he conscripts and trains his Swedish subjects - thus achieving an organized version of a citizen army. He instils in his soldiers sufficient discipline for them to be able to respond to flexible tactics on the battlefield.

For the same purpose he makes his infantrymen's pikes less unwieldy, shortening them from 16 to 11 feet. He lightens the weight of armour, wearing himself only a leather jacket in battle. And he reduces the number of men in each company in battle formation.

Together with these measures of increased human mobility go similar improvements in artillery. Gustavus's ordnance factories produce a cast-iron cannon less than half the weight of any other in the field, but still capable of firing a four-pound shot. Moreover a form of cartridge holding a prepared charge of powder means that the cannon can be reloaded faster even than the muskets of the day.

This field artillery is mounted on carriages which can be pulled by two horses or even, when required, by a platoon of men.

When Gustavus's army is first seen in action in Germany, at Breitenfeld in 1631, the opposing Catholic army under Tilly is deployed in the cumbersome Spanish squares which have been the military convention for a century and more.

The Swedes begin the encounter with an artillery barrage from about 100 cannon which they have been able to bring to the field of battle. Thereafter the rout of the Catholics is completed in a series of unwelcome surprises - musketeers appear among lines of infantrymen instead of on the flanks, cavalry charges suddenly materialize from unexpected quarters. The battle sets a new order of military priority. Fire power and mobility are now the trump cards on the battlefield.

Vauban and fortification: 1654-1706

France's expansionist policies during the late 17th century benefit greatly from the military genius of Sebastien de Vauban, who spends more than half a century in active service in Louis XIV's campaigns. His special interest is in fortification (though he is also the inventor of the socket bayonet). In siege warfare he is as skilled in the arts of defence as of attack.

During his long career Vauban either builds or redesigns some 160 fortresses. But his most significant contribution is the tactic which he develops for approaching and breaching an enemy's stronghold.

Vauban's method, first put into practice during the Dutch wars at the 1673 siege of Maastricht, becomes known as the 'approach by parallel line'. It consists essentially of the infantry and artillery leapfrogging to the base of a fortress wall.

The range of a siege cannon at this time is about 600 yards. Vauban arranges his guns at this distance from the weakest flank of a fortress and then digs a trench behind the guns as a base for the infantry. From here musketeers can protect the artillery from attack by enemy sorties, and can at the same time cover sappers digging trenches which lead towards the fort. They dig in a zigzag line, as a protection from raking cannon-fire along a trench's length.

When the zigzag has moved forward about 200 yards, another trench is dug parallel to the fortress wall. Both infantry and artillery move up into this new position, and the process is repeated. The second move forward brings the sappers within range of musket fire from the ramparts. They extend their trench now under a protective roof, pushed forward on wheels (a device known as a gabion, in the ancient tradition of the Roman tortoise).

When the third parallel position is successfully established, the siege artillery is near enough for a direct bombardment on the walls. In most cases this is soon sufficient to force a breach in the defences.

Maastricht, subjected to these tactics in 1673, falls to the French army in thirteen days. In subsequent engagements Vauban's method of parallel lines proves reliable and easily adapted to each particular fortification and its surrounding terrain. It becomes the custom in the French army to classify enemy fortresses in terms of the number of days for which they are expected to hold out against an assault of this kind.

The majority of sieges during the 18th century are conducted by European armies along the lines pioneered by Vauban. His example also gives engineers, for the first time, an important status in any modern army.

Prussian tactics: 1740-1745

The successes of Frederick the Great on the battlefield during the early 1740s are achieved with a new degree of mobility in the employment of troops. A Prussian attack is an alarming affair for those confronting it. It depends greatly on the discipline of the standing army which Frederick has inherited from his stern father.

Frederick spreads his infantry out in a shallow formation, usually consisting of just two or three long lines each of which is only three men deep. This gives him a very wide front with equivalently great fire power from the soldier's muskets.

A Prussian army lines up in this type of formation about 1000 yards from the enemy. It then marches forward, as if on a parade ground, to the music of fife and drum. During this orderly advance (no doubt an extremely tense experience for both sides), the soldiers hold their fire until at a range of about 100 yards. They then fire a volley, reload, advance a few more paces and fire another. The final assault is made with the bayonet, in the socket version devised by Vauban.

Discipline is good enough for Frederick to be able to wheel his line of advance during an attack. Prussian drill and tactics rapidly provide the pattern which other European armies attempt to emulate.

Trench warfare: 1915-1917

By the start of 1915, on the western front, the pattern of trench warfare is established. It will trap all the combatant nations for the next three years in an insoluble deadlock in which the lifeblood of their young men drains unquenchably away.

The commanders-in-chief - John French and then Douglas Haig for Britain, Joseph Joffre and Philippe Pétain for France, Erich von Falkenhayn followed by Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff for Germany - all agree on one thing. The only way forward is to wear the opposing forces down in a ceaseless war of attrition, weakening them to the point where a sudden strategic breakthrough can be achieved.

Never in history have so many men, so heavily armed, remained for so long confronting each other in a restricted area of open ground. All the great battles of the war, some of them lasting several months, take place along a crescent stretching less than 200 miles from Ypres to Verdun. The few major advances made in either direction are less than 50 miles and are soon reversed. Most of the time it is a matter of winning, losing, clawing back a few hundred yards of shell-churned mud.

Yet in this blighted area, during the four years of the war, millions of men lose their lives. In one day alone, at the start of the four-month battle of the Somme in 1916, 20,000 British soldiers die and another 40,000 are wounded.

The pattern of attack, from one line of trenches to the other across no man's land, becomes more sophisticated as the months roll by but remains essentially the same. The trenches are protected by lethal rolls of barbed wire. These need to be flattened before there is any hope of the advancing infantry reaching the enemy. This is achieved by a preliminary bombardment from artillery behind the lines, lasting days and sometimes weeks.

In the early part of the war the bombardment ends when the infantry go over the top of their trenches, armed with rifles, bayonets and hand grenades, to stagger and slither towards the machine guns awaiting them.

Later a slight improvement is made in the form of the rolling barrage, in which the artillery gunners steadily raise their sights as the troops advance. The purpose is to lay down ahead of them a carpet of high-explosive shells, forcing the enemy to keep their heads down. Reconnaissance aircraft fly overhead, equipped with radio, to report back to the gunners where their shells are landing and what enemy targets are available.

Even when this softening-up procedure succeeds, the infantry are left with a lonely final assault on the trenches followed by close combat, unless (always the hoped-for result) the bombardment has in itself persuaded the enemy to withdraw to a secondary line of defence.

Innovations on the western front: 1915-1917

There are occasional innovations on the western front, when radically new weapons are brought to the battlefield in an attempt to clear the enemy more effectively from their trenches.

The Germans first try the use of chlorine gas against the Russians in Poland in January 1915, but the extreme cold makes it ineffective. They make a second attempt at Ypres in April 1915. This time the creeping poisonous green vapour immediately empties the French trenches. But the Germans, not anticipating such an immediate success, fail to take advantage of their opportunity. Five months later the British use chlorine gas, at Loos in September - again to little advantage, partly because the wind changes and blows the gas back over their own men.

By the end of the war both sides make frequent use of even more alarming gases (phosgene and mustard). The damage is limited by the gas mask, soon part of the basic equipment of every soldier, though mustard gas also causes severe burns to the skin.

From 1916 poison gas is no longer released from canisters, to drift with the wind across the enemy's position. Now it is fired in compressed form in shells and mortars, to expand on impact. During one advance, in the Ypres region in March 1918, the Germans fire half a million mustard gas shells into the Allied lines. But protective measures by now ensure that even such a heavy bombardment results in only 7000 gas casualties and less than 100 deaths.

Poison gas has been relatively little used in subsequent wars, for fear of retaliation in kind. But modern warfare has been transformed by another innovation on the western front.

During the battle of the Somme, on 15 September 1916, the British send into action eleven vehicles of an entirely new kind, the Mark I tank. On this first occasion they make relatively little impression. But on their second outing, at Cambrai in November 1917, they prove their unmistakable value in clearing the battleground for the infantry following behind them. Unlike foot soldiers, tanks can advance against the dreaded machine gun and can crash through the barbed wire barricades protecting the enemy trenches.

This History is as yet incomplete.

Previous page Page 8 of 8