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Battles Win Wars

Total war is a when a belligerent engages in the complete mobilization of all their available resources and population. In the mid-19th Century, "total war" was identified by scholars as a separate class of warfare. In a total war, there is less differentiation between combatants and civilians than in other conflicts, and sometimes no such differentiation at all, as nearly every human resource, civilians and soldiers alike, can be considered to be part of the belligerent effort.

Battles win wars, topple thrones, and redraw borders. Every age of human history has experienced battles that have been instrumental in molding the future. Battles influence the spread of culture, civilization, and religious dogma. They introduce weapons, tactics, and leaders who dominate future conflicts. Some battles have even been influential not for their direct results, but for the impact of their propaganda on public opinion.

The Napoleonic Wars marked something fundamentally new in Western history, and collectively deserve the title of the first 'total war. Long before 1792, the major European powers had fought with each other at regular intervals, but those conflicts were remarkably limited in scope. The armies tended to avoid large-scale battle. Noncombatants could hope for relatively merciful treatment. Enemy officers dealt with each other as honorable adversaries. The major powers and their armed forces were still dominated by hereditary aristocracies, and war retained the feel of an aristocratic ritual. It was not play-acting by any means, but earlier wars proceeded according to a fairly strict code of aristocratic honor.

The French Revolution marked a sudden and dramatic break with this tradition. Revolutionary France overthrew the country's aristocracy along with its king and queen, and brought in new men (including the young and talented Bonaparte) to lead its armed forces. By 1793, its leaders were calling for total military mobilization of the population. Not only would young men go into the army, but women, old men and even children would turn their energies to the war effort, producing weapons, uniforms and supplies. France declared that its opponents were not honorable adversaries but enemies of the human race who amounted to nothing more than criminals.

The result was a steady escalation of horror that did not stop even after the high point of revolutionary radicalism had passed in France itself, and after Napoleon took power there in 1799. The figures speak for themselves: More than one-fifth of all the major battles fought in Europe between 1490 and 1815 took place in the 25 years after 1790. Before 1790 only a handful of battles had involved more than 100,000 combatants; in the 1809 Battle of Wagram, largest in the gunpowder age to date, involved 300,000. Just four years later the Battle of Leipzig drew 500,000, with fully 150,000 of them killed or wounded.

During the wars, France alone counted close to a million war deaths. In the process, France carved out for itself the greatest empire seen in Europe since the days of the Caesars, but lost it again in a stunningly short time. Until the time of Napoleon, European states employed relatively small armies, made up of both national soldiers and mercenaries. However, military innovators in the mid-18th century began to recognize the potential of an entire nation at war: a "nation in arms".

For almost two hundred years, from about 1630 through the eighteenth century, Western Europeans had discarded the lance for use in mounted combat. During the Napoleonic wars, this long-ignored tool of the horse soldier was reinstituted on the battlefield, although heated disputes about its military suitability soon followed.After the Anglo-Danish conflicts, including the Norman Conquest in 1066, mail-clad feudal horsemen ruled the battlefield for roughly 250 years. Armor-protected knights charged on horseback wielding lances ten to eleven feet long (cut down to as short as five feet by both the French and English at the Battle of Agincourt). The age ended with the rise of the bowmen in the fourteenth century. While the devastating volleys of English longbow men had initiated the change at Crecy on August 26, 1346, it was massed bodies of pikemen that really thwarted cavalry charges, as they did at the Battle of Pavia in 1525. Widespread use of gunpowder made the knight's charge futile, even suicidal, by the 1560s.

Horsemen turned to the wheel-lock pistol themselves. The Schwartzen Reiter (Black Riders) employed mounted volley fire and countermarch tactics (the caracole), although by about 1630 the cavalry was replacing unreliable and short-range pistols with swords and sabers. Sweden's King Gustavus Aldolphus, for example, abandoned the lance in favor of arming his cavalry with swords and pistols during the Thirty Years' War. In a relatively quick period of time, all but the peoples in Europe who had been under Eastern influence, such as the Russians, Hungarians, Cossacks, and Poles, abandoned lancers.

It's a bloody business

Look back over the course of history. There are many moments that could have been called break points because of technology. People at the time thought the world would be fundamentally different because of that technology. Gunpowder would be an example. Use of gas in World War I. Atomic and nuclear weapons. In reality, the fundamental nature of war hasn't changed, won't change, and, in fact, can't change. The nature of war was probably best explained and articulated by the Prussian general and theorist Carl von Clausewitz, who wrote the classic On War. In the book, he lays out the nature of war, which is, first of all, fundamentally uncertain. There is no way to predict how any war will turn out. As he said, it has its own dynamics as it unfolds. If you understand the fundamental nature of war, you realize that it's not going to change. What is changing-in fact, is always changing-is the character and form of war, and the technology is what influences that character and form. We need to understand that and be careful of it, but it's not what should drive us.

We hear many terms, whether it's "transformation," "military technical revolution," "revolution of military affairs," all indicating something revolutionary has happened that's going to change warfare. Nothing has happened that's going to change the fundamental elements of war. The nature of war is immutable, though the character and form will change. The difficulty is that those who put forth this argument believe that something fundamentally has changed, and you can change very quickly without thinking your way through it. They want to apply the technology without the brainpower. What I see are slogans masquerading as ideas. In a sense, they make war more antiseptic. They make it more like a machine. They don't understand it's a terrible, uncertain, chaotic, bloody business. So they can lead us the wrong way. They can cause people not to understand this terrible, terrible phenomenon.

Anyone who understands war would never deny the place of technology. It has a very prominent place, a very important place. It's not technology for technology's sake. Worst of all would be for technology to lead the military instead of the ideas leading the development of the technology. The first thing you have to understand is how you plan to fight in the future or in a particular engagement, a particular war. And once you understand how you're going to fight, then you bring the technology to it. If you lead with the technology, I think you're bound to make mistakes.

The art of war and the science of war are not coequal. The art of war is clearly the most important. It's science in support of the art. Any time that science leads in your ability to think about and make war, I believe you're headed down a dangerous path. The art is the thinking. It is the intellectual underpinnings of war. It's understanding the theory and the nature. It's understanding how it is you want to bring combat power to bear, and what the operating concepts are. The science is represented by the weapons. It's represented by the ammunition. It's represented by the command and control, and by the communications, the space-based systems, for example.

Part of an interview of Paul Van Riper conducted on December 17, 2003, by Scott Willis, producer of "Battle Plan Under Fire," and edited by Alex Vlack, field producer of "Battle Plan Under Fire," and Peter Tyson, editor in chief of NOVA Online.

The lancer began reappearing in European armies almost unnoticed. The Hapsburgs formed a lancer regiment shortly after acquiring parts of Poland in the third partition of that nation by Austria, Prussia, and Russia in 1795. They raised a second regiment in 1798, and another in 1801. Russia converted a number of light cavalry formations into lancers in 1803. Both countries enrolled Poles and Lithuanians exclusively in their new lancer units. The prowess of these peoples with the lance gave the Hapsburgs and the Russians a ready pool of skilled and well-trained lancers.

In Western Europe, the greatest impetus for reintroducing lancers came from France. That country had not employed mounted troops with lances since the days of Herman Maurice, marshal de Saxe, in the mid-eighteenth century, and even these amounted only to a meager number of Polish volunteers and adventurers. De Saxe used them for scouting and raiding; the French army did not even officially recognize them.

the 'true weapon of the cavalry was the lance, convinced Napoleon to create his own regiment of lancers from Polish volunteers. Although designated under the decree of March 2, 1807, as the Regiment de Chevau-Legers Polonais de la Garde, it did not obtain lances until after the Battle of Wagram in 1809. It was renamed in 1811 Le 1er Regiment de Chevau-Legers Lanciers de la Garde Impériale, the first lancer unit in the French army, and a component of the emperor's Imperial Guard.

From this beginning sprang a dramatic resurgence in lance-equipped mounted regiments among the armies of Europe. The Austrians formed their third regiment in 1813. By the end of the Napoleonic wars, Russia maintained twelve regular lancer regiments, plus dozens of irregular Cossack regiments and squadrons sporting the weapon. By 1815, Prussia had eight lancer (or uhlan, a Polish word) regiments, as well as a squadron attached to the Guard. Further single squadrons or companies of lancers were added to nonlancer regiments in all the armies of Europe, to give those units more shock power. Examples include Russian hussar regiments and the French 31st Chasseurs a Cheval, all usually armed with saber, carbine, and pistol as well as a lance.

Napoleon, spurred on by the energy six Allied Polish lancer regiments expended during the Austrian campaign of 1809 (especially at Wagram), two years later formed nine regiments of this category of troops (called the French lancers) by converting six existing French dragoon regiments and one chasseur regiment, as well as the old Lancers of the Vistula. These regiments of the line were soon followed by three more such organizations that became members of Napoleon's Imperial Guard. Uniformed in hussar fashion, they generally carried lances measuring six feet nine inches long, light cavalry sabers, and pistols into combat.

Yet the French cavalry regiments generated controversy about their effectiveness in battle. The officers and enlisted men first questioned the efficacy of using lances on the nineteenth-century battlefield. Many of these critics had participated in the Napoleonic wars. As light cavalry, lancer units were expected to be able to scout and skirmish with enemy horsemen. However, critics pointed out that the lance was virtually useless against cavalry in close quarters — it was more of a pole than a weapon — and it prevented the user from either retreating or advancing rapidly.

Lance devotees argued that lancers could defeat enemy cavalry in a melee. On June 17, 1815, during the Waterloo campaign, French lancers were working their way through the Belgian town Genappe. As they debouched from the village, British light cavalry and then heavy cavalry attacked them, both units armed with sabers. According to French sources, the lancers easily beat back the first enemy assaults, but additional attacks caused the lancers' line to break. British versions of the event say the heavy cavalry of the Union Brigade prevailed in close hand-to-hand fighting, forcing the French from Genappe.

Regardless of the examples of lancer usefulness and uselessness during the Napoleonic wars, European militaries continued to employ lancers after 1815. Great Britain raised its first lancer regiments in 1816, using them against the indigenous peoples of the empire. When World War I broke out in 1914, all the major combatants fielded lancer formations. Of course, they quickly discarded them when barbed wire and machine gun fire prevailed on the battlefields. Just as in the seventeenth century, the evolving technology of war doomed the lance, along with the horse-borne trooper who carried it into battle.

Arnold Blumberg. Weaponry: Lancers. Military History Quarterly. Spring 2006.


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