The State at War

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In modern warfare, the idea that a whole country can be dragged into conflict is hardly novel. In the Second World War, for instance, the vast majority of casualties were civilians (particularly in Russia) and the domestic infrastructure and economies of many major participants were decimated. In Warsaw, over 85% percent of the city was destroyed. However, total war is a relatively recent invention. Indeed, until the Revolutionary Wars of 1792, warfare was generally intended to be limited in size, scale and cost.

In 18th Century Europe, war was a needless expense. After the horrors of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), most monarchs were eager to avoid conflict and upsetting the status quo. Armies were small (the British Army in 1714 was only 16,000 men), often formed of paid mercenaries, and followed rigid traditions. The soldiers themselves were recruited from the margins of society, often criminals and paupers, and were labelled by Wellington as the “scum of the earth”. Desertion rates were high and discipline brutal.

The officers, meanwhile, were drawn from the upper classes and were expected to ‘buy’ their commissions, with the price varying based on the rank and regiment in which an officer wished to enter. The practice began to be phased out around the turn of the 19th Century, although it continued in the British Army until the Cardwell reforms of 1871.

Monarchs were unwilling to risk their armies and guns, and so tended to avoid all-out conflict. The most preferred strategy was to outflank an enemy and capture their supply dump. The army, thus deprived of its food, would be forced to concede defeat without ever actually resorting to a battle. Warfare was thus seen as a ‘gentleman’s game’ which provided employment (and entertainment) to the upper class. 

This is not to say that the 18th Century was wholly devoid of warfare. Indeed, the Seven Years’ War (1756 – 1763) is often called the real ‘First World War’ because of the number of combatant states and the worldwide locations of battles. However, even the vast numbers involved in this war were drawn mostly from professional and mercenary ranks, and these forces were greatly dispersed such that arguably the largest battle, the Battle of Prague in 1760, only totalled 120,000 troops. Furthermore, the war did not affect the lives of ordinary civilians even in the countries where it was contested to the same extent as later conflicts.

It was in the final decades of the century that the development of revolutionary warfare would create a new, more fervent and bitter, style of conflict. The first of these wars was the American War of Independence (1776-1783) as the North American colonies sought, successfully, their independence from Great Britain. The conflict saw important changes in the nature of warfare, most importantly in the development of the ‘citizen soldier’.

Previously, warfare had been waged in the name of monarchs or religions: now, it was being fought for liberty, a far more tangible cause. Soldiers were motivated, determined and could be trusted by their officers. The fixation on discipline in 18th Century armies had arisen from a desire to prevent desertion, a constant problem in European forces. This led to simplistic and often predictable tactics. For instance, night attacks often had to be avoided because it was far easier for a soldier to desert in the dark.

However, the North American colonists – fighting for their freedom – could be trusted, giving commanders greater tactical flexibility and leading to a rise in ‘skirmishers’ (individual sharpshooters who would hide on the battlefield and target officers).

French soldiers fighting in the French Revolutionary Wars (1792-1802) shared this determination. They were not fighting on behalf of a monarch nor to resolve some territorial dispute but rather for an ideal. The French government at the time was fully committed to maximising this advantage as they strove to use this ideological zeal to allow for tactical ingenuity. Incompetent and untrustworthy Generals were executed (67 in 1794 alone) and ‘deputies on mission’ were sent to monitor the revolutionary credentials of each regiment. Song books were distributed and propaganda was disseminated to reinforce this idea that the soldiers were fighting to protect republicanism. This was all manifested in a sharp decrease in desertion rates compared to before and relative to their opponents.

Individual citizens were similarly expected to contribute to the war effort and protect France from the forces of monarchy and totalitarianism. The entire French state was mobilised for war. Key industries were requisitioned by the national government, who set up 20 new sword and bayonet factories as well as 12 new musket factories to supply the armies of the revolution. 

The implementation of the levée en masse shared this purpose. The levée was a policy of mass national conscription of able-bodied men from 18 to 25. The initiative mobilised 750,000 men, creating an army which simply dwarfed its opponents, allowing France to wage war on an unprecedent scale. By 1793, France was simultaneously engaged in 10 campaigns at a rate of two to three battles per week.

Naturally, this new armed force required new tactics. The most common military formation of the early 18th Century was the ‘line’: soldiers would line up horizontally to a depth of about three rows and fire in turn (reloading a musket took between 15-20 seconds at this point). Implementing the formation successfully required discipline and months of training. France, encircled by monarchies who distasted the revolution and all that it represented, did not have the required time, but they did have a significant numerical advantage over their enemies.

As such, French forces were organised into ‘column’ formations. This involved the compression of troops into rows 9 to 12 men deep and 50 to 80 men wide, resembling a crude battering ram. Columns would simply bash into enemies, drawing exceptionally high casualty rates (20 percent was standard) but, in turn, delivering the French Army victory after victory.

At Jemappes, for instance, in November 1792, the French wore down the forces of the Holy Roman Empire by smashing column after column against the Cuesmes ridge where the Austrian forces had taken defensive cover. The approach may have been crude and the casualties horrendous, but France’s aforementioned conscription meant this was no barrier to success, as her forces could be easily replenished.

This new mass warfare continued into the Napoleonic Wars (1802-1815). However, France’s enemies now had also adopted the strategy of mass mobilisation, leading to enormous battles and casualty rates. At Leipzig in 1813, 360,000 Russian, Austrian and Prussian troops fought against a French force of 200,000 over the course of three days. The result was 127,000 casualties – a battle unmatched in scale until the Siege of Verdun over a century later.

The final decade of the 18th Century and the first of the 19th saw dramatic and permanent shifts in how war was waged. Not only were tactics modernised, but the scale of warfare was dramatically increased. The limited conflicts of the 18th Century were at an end. Whether in Crimea, the Somme or Stalingrad, war had become state-sponsored industrial slaughter.

Browning, P., 2010. The Changing Nature of Warfare: The Development of Land Warfare from 1792 to 1945. Cambridge University Press.

Stewart, N., 2001. The Changing Nature of Warfare 1700-1945. Hodder Education.