views updated



Looking back, probably more Europeans were killed in the wars of the twentieth century than in those of all previous ones combined. Looking back, too, more innovations were applied to European warfare during the twentieth century than during all the previous ones combined. As the century went on, each time a new technology made its appearance, rivers of inks, later replaced by legions of blips on computer screens, were spilled to explain its impact on tactics, strategy, organization, training, doctrine, logistics, and what not, as well as how extraordinarily complex it had all become.

On the other hand, the story of twentieth-century warfare in Europe is very simple. First, between 1900 and 1945, it expanded and expanded until all the great European powers, forming coalitions and aligning themselves with non-European ones, were fighting each other; indeed it was only a few small countries, such as Sweden, Switzerland, Spain, and Portugal, that were able to escape the slaughter. Next, war all but disappeared from the Continent, permitting the European countries, which had lost their global role, to engage in vain attempts to save their colonial empires. Finally, in 1991–1999 war returned to Europe or at least to one part of it—that is, Yugoslavia. The bombing of Madrid in March 2004 also showed that the Continent's involvement in certain kinds of war might be far from over. By then, however, much of Europe's military standing in the world had been lost, and most of the European armed forces had become limited in their ability to wage war.


On the eve of World War I, six out of the world's seven most powerful armed forces—namely those of Germany, France, Italy, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and Britain—were either purely European or focused on Europe and preparing to face each other in that small continent. Each of those forces, and the states that created them, was the product of centuries of political, economic, and military development as well as technical innovation. Of the six, five—Germany, France, Italy, Austria-Hungary, and Russia—relied on general conscription for manpower. This enabled them to put as much as 10 percent of their entire populations into uniform and keep them there for years on end. Not everybody liked conscription, and some emigrated to other continents to avoid it. On the whole, though, most European nations looked on their armed forces as their pride and joy and never tired of putting them on parade and displaying them.

Though each major country had long had an army and a navy, nobody had yet thought of putting those two services under a joint command. Armies still consisted of the traditional arms of infantry, cavalry, and artillery, but the proliferation of magazine-loading small arms, machine guns, and quick-firing cannon was clearly causing the first and the third of these to gain at the expense of the second. Whereas strategic movements now tended to be carried out by rail, most operational and all tactical ones (both of troops and of supplies) were still carried out by the muscle of men and animals. However, the first automobiles were already being introduced; in September 1914 the taxis of Paris made a substantial contribution to the French victory at the Marne. In the field of command, control, and communication, age-old means such as visual and auditory signals as well as written messages were being supplemented by electric ones in the form of the telegraph, the telephone, and radio. However, all three were cumbersome and fragile. Consequently they spread slowly from superior headquarters down; the closer to the front one got, the greater the tendency to utilize such ancient means as runners, blinking lights, and even messenger dogs.

Technological developments at sea were, if anything, even more revolutionary than those that took place on land. The beginning of the twentieth century caught the major European navies in the midst of a major transition toward far larger and more powerful, but also more expensive and hence fewer, battleships. As sail had all but disappeared—it was only still used by a few commerce-raiders—coal was being replaced by oil and reciprocating steam engines by turbines. Smaller vessels such as battle cruisers, cruisers, destroyers, and torpedo boats mimicked their giant brothers. In them modern engines were married to improved weapons, increasing performance by leaps and bounds. The first diesel-electric submarines were already being experimented with. However, they were still untried in battle and their potential was unknown.

In 1914 there were a number of recent conflicts (only one of them European) to which European officers, considered to be the best and most knowledgeable in the world, could look for lessons. Of those, two—the Italian occupation of Libya (1911) and the Balkan Wars (1912–1913)—did not involve forces comparable to those of the major powers. In an age of racial stereotypes, the self-styled paragons of civilization considered many of those who fought in them barely human; the same was even more true of the Japanese-Chinese War of 1895. The Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905) gave rise to greater interest, but the lessons people drew from it were mostly wrong. First, whereas the great naval battle of Tsushima seemed to show that battle fleets continued to rule the seas, emerging technologies—including, besides the above-listed, aircraft—were slowly starting to create a situation where such fleets barely dared leave their home bases. Second, though the Japanese ultimately broke through the Russian lines at Mukden, this victory merely masked the immense difficulty and cost of doing so. Perhaps the only valid lesson one could really draw from the war was how hard it was to attack a fortified city such as Port Arthur from the sea. In the event, and as the 1915 Gallipoli campaign was to show, that lesson too went unheeded.

Much worse still, the idea that wars would be short and decisive—as, given their enormous cost, they had to be—had hardened into dogma and was propagated by most authorities from the German chief of the general staff Alfred von Schlieffen (1833–1913) down. Those, such as the Polish writer Ivan Bloch, who tried to refute it, were largely ignored. All European countries were now covered by a more or less dense network of railways and telegraphs. This enabled them to field teams that, depending on taste, dressed in field gray, green-gray, horizon blue, earth-brown, and khaki. Upon the signal being given, each team would mobilize its reservists. They would entrain ("fillons, citoyens, montons, sur les trains," as a variant on the Marsellaise had it), disentrain, march, engage, break through, outflank, encircle, kill, take each other prisoner, and be home by Christmas. The model for much of this was not the Russo-Japanese War but the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871), which, many thought, still represented the most "modern" war in history until then.

Initially vast operational movements, carried out by as many as a million and a half troops (the number of Germans invading France) did in fact take place but, like water pouring out of a bucket, they soon ran out of momentum. One reason for this was the inability of supplies, most of which still depended on horse-drawn wagons, to keep up; another was the difficulty of commanding advancing armies by means of wire-bound telegraphs and telephones. The main reason, though, was the lethal combination of trenches, barbed wire, and the immense firepower of modern weapons—so immense, indeed, that all belligerents started running out of ammunition within months of entering the war and had to take emergency measures to produce more of it.

As the defense triumphed over the offense, the most important front, that is, the western one, froze. Later the same experience repeated itself on the Italian, Ottoman, and Macedonian fronts. Only in eastern Europe did the battle remain somewhat fluid. Partly this was because the immense spaces meant that there were fewer rifles, machine guns, and artillery pieces per square mile of ground; partly because of the weakness of Russia, which in 1913 only produced as much steel as Belgium did. As one big push followed another in mostly vain attempts to break through, the entire character of the conflict changed. Whether because armies had grown or because of advancing technology, each day of fighting required between ten and twelve times as many supplies as in 1870–1871. To obtain them, war had to reach back, so to speak, from the trenches and the lines of communications into the factories and fields. Both fields and factories were overseen by huge armies of bureaucrats headed by the likes of Walther Rathenau (1867–1922) in Germany, Georges Clemenceau (1841–1929) in France, and David Lloyd George (1863–1945) in Britain. Increasingly drawing in civilians—of both sexes—as well as uniformed personnel, war became a vast exercise in mobilization. This, in turn, fed some of the fiercest fighting in history; as when the British at the Somme fired 1,500,000 shells to prepare their offensive and lost 60,000 men on the first day after launching it.

The principal continental powers could have fought each other with hardly any reference to the sea. To a large extent, that was just what Germany, France, Austria, Russia, and Italy did. The situation of Britain was entirely different. Not only did it depend on its navy for transporting troops to the Continent, but, as an island, it was entirely dependent on imports for its very existence; hence the commander of the home fleet, Admiral John Jellicoe (1859–1935), was the only person on either side who could have lost the war in an afternoon. Germany, the main belligerent on the side of the Triple Alliance, did what it could to starve out Britain and to cut the sea-lanes linking it to France. On both sides, the mighty battle fleets hardly participated in the contest; in the entire war they only engaged each other once. Instead naval warfare revolved around convoys, attacking them and defending them. This job was entrusted not to capital ships but to the much smaller, cheaper, and more expendable destroyers and submarines.

By the time the war ended, the art of waging it had been transformed. At sea, though many people refused to admit it, battleships were clearly on the way out. They were about to be replaced by smaller craft, underwater craft, and aircraft; what the latter could do was vividly illustrated soon after the war in the famous experiments conducted by an American officer, Billy Mitchell (1879–1936). On land, not only had the scale of operations (and of losses suffered) grown monstrous beyond anything known to man in thousands of years of history but also new technologies and new techniques were beginning to point the way to the future. Ignoring gas, which only accounted for 3 percent of all casualties and turned out to have less of a future than most people thought, the most important device was the tank. The first tanks were conceived as trench-crossing machines behind which infantry could advance. Later, their success in that role suggested that they might be turned into armored cavalry; as such, they would restore mobility to the battlefield. Tanks and the troops that, after much experimentation, were joined with them into armored divisions—artillery, motorized infantry, and antitank—could be supplied by motor vehicles and commanded by radio. The model for armored operations was provided by German light-infantry tactics—the same that, between November 1917 and July 1918, repeatedly proved their ability to break through fortified trench systems and reach the open country behind.

Airpower, too, was beginning to play an important role. In 1914–1918, aircraft—there were also lighter-than-air devices, but they proved too vulnerable for many missions—were employed on almost every conceivable mission. Originally they engaged in surveillance and reconnaissance. Later they also fought each other, progressing through darts to hand guns, carbines, and, finally, machine guns. Some aircraft strafed and dropped bombs at the front (close support), lines of communication (interdiction), and the enemy's rear. Others were used for artillery-observation, liaison, and evacuation. For 1919 a British officer, Lieutenant Colonel John Frederick Charles Fuller (1878–1966), even put together a plan for using a combination of aircraft and tanks to break through the German front. However, the war ended before it could be implemented; still, many saw it as a harbinger of things to come. The first country to set up an independent air force as a third service equal to the army and the navy was Britain in April 1918. Others followed; twenty years later, though details of organization differed, every major European country had its own independent air force.


The "Great War," as it was called, caused the collapse of three mighty European empires—the German, the Austrian, and the Russian. Of these, Germany and Russia (as the Soviet Union) were able to reconstitute themselves until they were more powerful than before. Of the three European victors, France and Britain were considerably weakened militarily, whereas the third, Italy, was only called a great power by courtesy. In spite of these changes, and in spite of numerous well-meaning attempts at disarmament, international cooperation, and the like, the kind of relationship that prevailed between the main European powers did not change much. This made a repetition all but certain. As the French commander in chief, Ferdinand Foch (1851–1929), is supposed to have said when he was presented with the Treaty of Versailles: "This is not peace, this is an armistice for twenty years."

Not that the period in question was entirely peaceful. Still limiting ourselves to the military activities of European powers, several of them found themselves involved in colonial conflicts, about which more below. Europe itself witnessed first the Russian civil war, which took up 1918 and most of 1919, and then the war between Soviet Russia and Poland, which only ended in the following year. Given the circumstances, inevitably both of these wars were waged by leftover troops with leftover weapons. Some of the operations were waged on an immense scale; however, with the dubious exception of the armored train they saw little military innovation. The same did not apply to the Spanish civil war (1936–1939). Compared with the size of the country, the number of troops engaged was not large, and the firepower at their disposal was limited. Yet the conflict did enable the Germans in particular to experiment with new techniques including, above all, airpower. By the Luftwaffe's own subsequent standards, let alone those of the Anglo-American air forces that were to bomb Germany to smithereens, the attack on Guernica was militarily insignificant. And, in fact, had it not been for Picasso's famous painting it would almost surely have been forgotten.

As Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) once said, war makes the victor stupid and the loser malicious. Having lost World War I, the Germans were prepared to learn. Covertly before 1933, openly thereafter, they experimented with the novel combination of armor and airpower; to the latter's "old" missions they added airborne assault in the form of paratroopers and gliders. A command system based on radio—the Germans were the first to install a two-way device in every tank—and a supply system that was at least partly motorized completed the picture. The outcome was a new form of war known, if only in retrospect, as blitzkrieg. Specifically designed to permit short, decisive campaigns, from September 1939 to late 1942 blitzkrieg was triumphant. Entire air forces were destroyed, often by a devastating surprise attack against their bases. Entire armies were encircled and defeated, and entire countries knocked out of the war in short order. At peak, German troops stood guard from Narvik to the Pyrenees and from Brest to Stalingrad, more than a thousand miles away from the Wehrmacht's starting lines.

Next, the boot passed to the other foot as the Soviets, having set up similar forces and learned the necessary lessons, struck back. The return to mobility was completed when the British, who had been expelled from the Continent in 1940, were joined by the Americans; together they invaded first Italy and then France. Owing partly to difficult geographical conditions, partly to strategic errors, the Allied campaign in Italy stalled. Elsewhere, however, much of Europe once again witnessed huge, mobile campaigns that made the Second World War appear very different from the First.

Still, in the end the combination of armor and airpower failed to bring a decision. In part this was because Britain, being an island, could not be reached by the legendary Panzer divisions; nor did the German air force, designed to assist the ground forces, have what it took to wage strategic warfare. Even more important were the limitations of the armored divisions themselves. Having been conceived as offensive instruments, from 1943 on they proved equally effective on the defense. As a result, the forces on both sides largely neutralized each other. Each armored division required 300 to 650 tons of supplies per day to remain operational. Each had to be followed by vast convoys of motor vehicles, which themselves made vast demands in terms of fuel, spare parts, and maintenance. Each time the spearheads moved forward more than two hundred miles from base they had to stop to enable the railways to catch up.

War of attrition

As a result, and in spite of the brilliance of the initial brilliant moves and the decisive nature of those that took place in 1944–1945, World War II in Europe followed the pattern of World War I and became a struggle of attrition. Much of the attrition took place on land, particularly on the eastern front, which accounted for over three million German dead as well as ten million Soviet ones (this number includes uniformed personnel only). However, it also took place in the air and at sea. In 1914–1918, airpower—in the form of double-decked contraptions made mostly of wood, wire, and fabric—had only been able to deliver pinpricks at the enemy homeland. In 1939–1945 it developed into an awesome instrument. Already the early campaigns of 1939–1941 showed that fighter-bombers could decisively influence the ground battle. Later they were joined by thousands of heavy, four-engined bombers. Learning how to use the bombers in the face of tough opposition—antiaircraft guns and fighter aircraft, both increasingly guided by radar—took time. However, by the last two years of the war they were fully capable of turning entire cities into flaming infernos where tens of thousands were incinerated. Nor were cities the only targets. Factories, ports, and land-transportation arteries were also hit, disrupting production and ultimately threatening the countries at the receiving end with famine.

As in World War I, the British, later joined by the Americans, imposed a naval blockade. As in World War I, the Germans tried to starve out Britain by submarine warfare, a task in which, at times, they almost succeeded but in which they ended up losing eight out of every nine submarines engaged. In the Atlantic and elsewhere, the war against submarines was waged very much by frigates, destroyers, and small carriers escorting the merchantmen that were carrying men and supplies from the United States to Britain. By contrast, the role battleships played in naval warfare was again relatively minor. Many spent almost their entire time in port. There they constituted a burden rather than an asset; think of the German Tirpitz hiding in its Norwegian fjord. Thus the sea and oceans surrounding the European theater of war did not witness the vast sea-to-sea encounters that the Pacific did during the war between the United States and Japan.


By definition, attrition takes time. Coupled with technological progress that had taken place since 1918, time permitted resources to be mobilized on an even greater scale than previously. For example, thirteen million soldiers wore the German uniform in World War I; in World War II the figure was almost eighteen million. The USSR mobilized thirty-four million; at the height of the conflict the main European belligerents between them had about thirty million men (and over a million women) under arms. Though the United States produced the greatest mass of war materials by far, in Europe too prodigies of production never considered possible in peacetime were accomplished, as when Britain in 1940–1941 turned out fighter aircraft as if they were matches and as when the Soviets demolished their military industries and rebuilt them behind the Ural Mountains. In every European country, armies of producers, between 30 and 60 percent of whom were women, were put to work in the factories and the fields. Some countries paid good money to their workers, whereas others placed greater reliance on coercion.

As in World War I, operations in Europe were larger by far than anywhere else. As in World War I, too, the mobilization effort involved entire nations and was coordinated by hundreds of thousands of pen pushers. Perhaps even more important for the future, those pen pushers also coordinated the efforts of a research and development establishment far larger and more effective than anything the world had ever seen. Laboring day and night, scientists and engineers rewarded their employers with a very large number of technical devices destined to transform war and, later, much of civilian life as well. Among the most important ones developed in Europe were radar (Britain) and jet engines (Britain and Germany); computers (Germany) and ballistic missiles (Germany again). They also included countless lesser inventions, from proximity fuses to radar-absorbent paint and from new cryptographic methods to operations research and navigational aids for aircraft; scarcely three months passed without some new device being thrown into the struggle and demanding a countermeasure.

Still, the greatest invention of all was made outside Europe. From the Curies, Pierre (1859–1906) and Marie (1867–1934), in the 1890s through Werner Heisenberg (1901–1976) in the 1920s to Niels Bohr (1885–1962), Enrico Fermi (1901–1954) and Otto Hahn (1879–1968) in the 1930s European scientists had made a critical contribution to the development of nuclear understanding and know-how. Various reasons prevented that know-how and that understanding from being translated into a practical device, however, and in the end doing so was left to the United States. The first atomic bomb was based on the splitting of uranium and developed as much explosive power as did the combined load of two thousand B-17 bombers (the type mainly used to lay Germany waste). The second used plutonium instead of uranium, developed 60 percent more power than the first, and left over a hundred thousand people dead. It did not take most people, Europeans included, long to grasp that they were destined to spend the rest of their lives in its shadow; today, their successors do so still.


Much more than World War I, World War II left Europe in ruins. Several tens of millions were killed, and many of the rest were close to starvation. The armed forces of Germany, France, and Italy had been defeated to the point where they practically ceased to exist. Those of Britain were in a somewhat better shape, but the war had so weakened the empire that the home island was almost reduced to an American satellite—Airstrip One, as some used to call it during World War II. The central part of the Continent was now occupied by the USSR. With as many as 160 divisions (active and reserve) at its disposal even in peacetime, the USSR completely overshadowed all the other European armed forces put together. What is more, in September 1949 the USSR followed the example of the United States and tested its first nuclear weapon.

Situated between the United States and the USSR, Europe, which at one time had contained by far the largest concentration of military power in the world, found itself reduced to a potential battlefield between them. Willingly, the countries of Western Europe aligned themselves with the United States and formed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949. Less willingly, those of Eastern Europe aligned themselves with the USSR and formed the Warsaw Pact six years later. Separated by an Iron Curtain—first a metaphorical one, then a very real one as the defenses on both sides went up and literally cut the continent in two—the two alliances glared at each other. Periodically they also made noises at each other and, as in 1948 and 1958–1961, threatened to go to war against each other over such issues as the right to control Berlin and access to that city. As early as 1955, though, a NATO war game concluded that, in case nuclear weapons were used in order to stop a Soviet invasion, tens of millions of Europeans would die and the territories they inhabited would be reduced to radioactive deserts. As to doing so without such weapons, the task appeared hopeless; the more so because Soviet doctrine emphasized that any war would be nuclear from the start.

As Winston Churchill (1874–1965) said, "the sturdy child of the balance of terror was peace." After 1945 the greatest concentrations of global military power deserted London, Paris, and Berlin in favor of Moscow and Washington, D.C. With some exceptions, it was from there that most military innovation came; nor did the fact that first Britain and then France tested their own nuclear weapons matter much in terms of the balance of power. On both sides of the Iron Curtain, Europe's armed forces rebuilt themselves as best they could, continuing to conscript their youth (even Britain, which had never had conscription in peacetime, now did so) and train it for war. All European countries set up unified ministries of defense to oversee the process. Some even succeeded in reconstituting their military-industrial infrastructure and introducing their own new weapon systems—such as Mirage combat aircraft (France), Chieftain tanks (Britain), and the best diesel-electric submarines anywhere (West Germany)—rather than simply buying them from their patrons. Whatever the methods, decade by decade they followed those patrons and "modernized." Yet, particularly in terms of quantity, in comparison both to what they had once been and to the forces fielded by the superpowers, the armed forces of Western Europe could never match those of the United States. East of the Iron Curtain, where the USSR did not fully trust its satellites, the imbalance was even more pronounced than in the West.

In other ways, too, Europe's role declined. Having acted as the world's military powerhouse from about 1700 on—a fact that went far to explain its expansion—Europe had also produced the most important military thinkers, from Carl von Clausewitz (1780–1831) down. As late as the 1930s Basil Liddell Hart (1895–1970) was still probably the best-known international pundit of all. It is a tribute to his journalistic skills, as well as to the conservatism of the armed forces, that he was able to maintain some of his position after 1945; still, by the late 1950s the center of doctrine, too, had shifted. For every Pierre Gaulois (France) and Ronald Simpkin (Britain) the United States produced five Henry Kissingers (b. 1923), Albert Wohlstetters (1912–1997), and Thomas Schellings (b. 1921). The USSR also produced some excellent military doctrine; though the names of those who wrote it never turned into household terms.


In the eastern half of Europe, heavy-handed Soviet rule left the armed forces of the Warsaw Pact countries with little to do. That was not true of the Western European members of NATO, many of which had rebellions in their colonies to contend with. Most of the colonies had been obtained during the long period of European military supremacy, often with the aid of ridiculously small forces operating far from home amidst the most incredible natural obstacles. During the interwar period, and as the Italian campaign in Ethiopia in particular showed, in terms of conventional warfare European superiority over their subjects still held; however, resistance to colonialism was growing. Thus it took the French three years, from 1922 to 1925, and a quarter-million troops to suppress the uprising of the Rif in Morocco. The British in 1936–1939 did succeed in bringing the Palestinian Arab Revolt to an end, but only after conceding most of its leaders' demands, including "evolution to independence" in ten years.

The great turning point in the balance between regular warfare on the one hand and guerrilla warfare (or banditry, wars of national liberation, Low Intensity Conflict, asymmetric warfare, and so forth) proved to be the 1941 German invasion of Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia at the time had as many as eight hundred thousand men under arms, and nobody who had seen them in action during World War I doubted their courage. Still it took the Wehrmacht only two weeks and four hundred dead to crush the army; it was after Belgrade was occupied that the problems started for the occupation forces. Ably assisted by the SS (Schutzstaffel) and the Gestapo, the Wehrmacht fought the guerrillas. At peak, the Axis powers had no fewer than twenty-nine divisions in the country. The total number of Yugoslavs killed either in antipartisan operations or in internecine clashes between opposing militias approached one million. Countless villages were destroyed, entire districts laid waste. Yet the occupation forces were unable to suppress the Yugoslav resistance, and Yugoslavia ended up as the only country to be evacuated by its German occupiers before the Allies could reach it.

To a greater or lesser extent the same experience was repeated throughout occupied Europe. The Poles, the Russians, the Greeks, the Italians, the French, even the Danes and the Dutch, all engaged in armed resistance. Some resistance movements took less time to get organized, others more. Some were more effective, others less. None succeeded in emulating the Yugoslavs by liberating their countries before those countries were liberated by foreign invaders, though the Greeks came close. On the other hand, by the time they were liberated none of the resistance movements was even near to being suppressed. Encouraged from outside, most were becoming more and more effective; Italy and France are particularly good examples of this.

Once World War II had ended, the way so many European countries had resisted the German occupation became a model for countless similar uprisings in other parts of the world. One of the first places where this happened was Palestine. The British army with one hundred thousand men tried to hold down a population of six hundred thousand Jews, just a few hundred of whom were active terrorists; however, it failed. Counting only countries in which they tried to use armed force, the British were also forced out of India, the Malay States (now part of Thailand and Malaysia), Kenya, Cyprus, and Aden (now part of Yemen), after which they gave up what still remained of their empire without a fight. The Dutch, the French, the Belgians, and finally the Portuguese all suffered a similar fate, trying to wage colonial wars—some of them very large and very cruel indeed—and suffering defeat as a result. At the time many people, Americans in particular, believed that these defeats were a consequence of the supposedly low morale of the European armies and of the societies that created them and sent them out to fight. That belief, though, proved to be ill-founded. When the Americans and Soviets tried their hand at the counterinsurgency game, the former in Vietnam, the latter in Afghanistan, their armed forces, though much larger and more lavishly equipped than anything any European power could field, were defeated in turn.


By 1970, with few exceptions, the colonial struggles were over. From northern Norway to the Adriatic, NATO and the Warsaw Pact countries still continued to glare at each other across their common frontier. Partly because their superpower patrons forbade it, partly because they recognized it would do them little good, no other European country had followed Britain and France in building nuclear weapons; conversely, the fact that those two did have the weapons in question made little difference either to their global military standing or to the place they occupied inside NATO. Overall, the nuclear balance of terror continued to hold as first West German Ostpolitik and then the Helsinki Agreements (1975) helped make war in "the Central Theater," as the Americans liked to call Europe, less likely. As to the old intra-European rivalries that had disturbed the peace of the Continent for centuries, they were largely forgotten. In the east, this was because of the heavy-handed policy of the USSR, which sought to present a show of unity and sometimes denied its satellites access to the most up to date weapon systems they were unable to produce themselves. In the west it was because of the growing trend toward unification and integration. World War II and the series of colonial wars that followed in its wake caused even those Western Europeans who had retained their enthusiasm for things military after 1918 to reject war as a solution to international problems. On both sides of the Iron Curtain this shift was accompanied by a very sharp drop in the birthrate from the late 1960s on.

Partly because they were left with little to do, partly because introducing one new weapon system after another was enormously expensive, and partly because relying on short-term conscript manpower was a very inefficient way to maintain and operate the increasingly complex technologies entering service, most Western European armies shrank year by year. The first to give up conscription were the British in 1960. The switch to long-term volunteers caused a sharp decline in the size of the forces, but in retrospect it proved to be a great success. As the 1982 Falkland War—incidentally, as of 2006, the last time any European country fought on its own—and the 1991 Gulf War in particular proved, the new manpower system enabled the British to send troops almost anywhere in the world without having to reorganize first. During the 1970s and 1980s most other NATO forces, including, in 1972, the American ones, started imitating the British example, some more so, some less. In 1996 even France, which had been the first modern country to introduce the levée en masse in 1792, followed suit, thus ending a tradition that had lasted two hundred years.

The colonial empires having been definitely lost, during the late twentieth century the campaigns undertaken by European forces were few and far between. The French army was fairly active in Africa, deposing or reinstating dictators in its former colonies, but none of its operations involved more than a reinforced battalion. That apart, the most important armed struggle was the British campaign in Northern Ireland. The "troubles" in Ireland go back to the eleventh century, when King Henry II (r. 1154–1189) tried to conquer the island. In 1690 King William III (r. 1689–1702) finally brought it under British control, a situation that lasted until 1921, when the Free Irish Republic was founded. Forty-eight years later, riots broke out between Protestants and Catholics in Ulster, which remained part of the United Kingdom. The British army was called in, but in the first three years its performance was disastrous. During that time, what had begun as rioting developed into widespread sectarian violence carried out by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and Protestant paramilitary groups. Over the next twenty-something years the British army fought a counterinsurgency campaign. When a peace agreement was finally signed, the army was still intact—engaging in similar struggles, other European forces around the world had become thoroughly demoralized—and Northern Ireland still remained very much part of the United Kingdom.

By the time the Cold War approached its end in 1989 the total number of European NATO troops (c. 1,800,000) was equal to that of the U.S. armed forces but only a fraction of the figure that had been available as far back as 1914. In the west, the strongest force was the German Bundeswehr with its five hundred thousand troops in peacetime. In point of quality it was often favorably compared to the U.S. armed forces; yet the bitter legacy of World War II prevented it from acquiring an independent war college, let alone an independent general staff. The remaining forces were considerably smaller, worse equipped, or both. Those of several of the smaller states had shrunk to the point where they could no longer operate without the support of their larger neighbors; wags suggested that, instead of maintaining an army, Denmark, for example, should run a tape saying, "we surrender." Still relying on conscription and modeling themselves on their Soviet patrons, several Eastern European armed forces were impressive on paper but almost entirely without the industrial infrastructure needed to produce major weapons systems, let alone develop new ones. As events were soon to show, their loyalty to, and willingness to fight for, their would-be political masters both at home and in the Kremlin was also more than doubtful. Perhaps nothing is more characteristic of these forces than the fact that, when the regimes they served collapsed, not one of them came to the rescue or even made a serious attempt to come to the rescue.


By eliminating the possibility that Europe would be turned into a battlefield between the superpowers and be devastated, the end of the Cold War caused Europeans on both sides of the former Iron Curtain to heave a deep sigh of relief. On the other hand, the transformation did little if anything either to change European attitudes toward war or to restore Europe's military power. If anything, the opposite was the case. Pacifism, which had been adopted by a growing number of Western Europeans for two decades, spread to Eastern Europe as well and thus became stronger still. On both sides of the former Iron Curtain, the willingness to serve in, and pay for, armed forces decreased.

Even before it was joined by the former Eastern bloc countries, the European Union had about as many inhabitants as the United States, almost as large a Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and almost as good an industrial-technological-scientific base capable of producing everything from small arms to missile-launching nuclear submarines; with respect to the former Soviet Union, the imbalance was even greater. Had it wanted to, clearly the European Union could have built armed forces second to none. The main reason why it did not happen was the absence of a perceived threat on the one hand and a lack of unity on the other. It is true that countries such as Britain and France, France and Germany, the Netherlands and Germany—later, as Poland joined NATO, Poland and Germany as well—took some steps to integrate their respective armed forces. Still, a unified European High Command did not emerge any more than a unified European State did. As of 2004, in spite of endless talk, even a European Expeditionary Force was still not available.

In the absence of unity most countries continued to go more or less their own way. In most cases, this meant falling further and further behind the United States in terms of military capability. Starting around 1990, the latter's armed forces, assisted by the convergence of several new technologies such as earth-circling satellites, GPS (Global Positioning System), computers, electronic sensors, and a whole series of precision-guided weapons (PGMs) embarked on what analysts called the Revolution in Military Affairs or RMA. In the view of its proponents, the RMA would increase the effectiveness of the American armed forces several times over; it was, indeed, compared to the introduction of arquebuses (cannons) in the sixteenth century and to that of modern armored divisions in the 1930s. East of the Atlantic, the Europeans watched the RMA unfold; however, partly because they did not see the need and partly because they did not have the money, they did little to follow suit. By the end of the decade, a vast gap had opened between the American armed forces and those of their European allies. Vis-à-vis the "new" allies that joined NATO from the former Eastern bloc, the gap was larger still.

Meanwhile war, instead of leaving Europe for good, was staging a comeback of sorts. Several European NATO countries participated in the Gulf War, and their armed forces performed credibly as far as their size permitted. One, Britain, also participated in the second war in Iraq, where its armed forces also performed credibly as far as their size permitted. Some, however, consider these as sideshows. Europeans could argue, as many did, that Saddam Hussein (b. 1937) had never posed any danger to the continent on which they lived and, hence, that fighting him was morally wrong and politically unnecessary. The case of Yugoslavia, which went up in flames in 1991 and where war continued intermittently for eight years, was somewhat different. This was not so much a war between states as a war inside them, waged not so much by regular forces as by ill-disciplined militias. Since the militias often resorted to ethnic cleansing if not outright genocide, the war caused civilian suffering rarely seen in Europe west of Russia since the end of the Thirty Years' War (1618–1648). At times it threatened to spread into other countries, especially Greece, which is a member both of NATO and the European Union. Yet so militarily weak had the Europeans become that they proved almost entirely impotent. In the end it was the American armed forces that brought an end to the conflict. Compared with that of their allies, the European contribution was minuscule.

Also, on 11 March 2004 a bomb exploded in Madrid, demolishing the central railway station and killing two hundred people. It was by no means the first attack of its kind; terrorism had been plaguing Britain, Spain, and, to a much lesser extent, other European countries for decades. For those who saw this as part of a worldwide pattern under which regular warfare was giving way to irregular war, the attack called renewed attention to the fact that, though Europe might not seek war, war might seek out Europe. The havoc wrought in Madrid was not the handiwork of a uniformed force obeying the orders of a state-run general staff. Instead it was produced by a very small group of people who did not wear uniforms, did not constitute an army, and could not be clearly located on the map. Spanish voters responded to the attack by electing a president who pulled Spanish troops out of Iraq. Europe's long-term response to attacks of this kind remains to be seen.


In spite of the immense number of details and the complex way countless factors acted and interacted, at bottom the story of twentieth-century warfare as it concerns Europe is easily told. Following a long period of development, by 1914 Europe had built up by far the largest concentration of military power ever seen on planet Earth. As was perhaps only to be expected, from that year until 1945 the Continent witnessed that power being used in two vast, absolutely devastating wars. Of those wars the second, relying on modern airpower and armored divisions, was much more mobile than the first; yet partly because the struggle was so immense, partly because the main armed forces resembled one another and neutralized each other, in the end it too was decided by attrition. Taking the period 1914–1945 as a whole, attrition caused the European powers to bleed each other half to death. This was not true of the two largest belligerents, the USSR and the United States, which mobilized all the economic, industrial, technical, and scientific resources available to them—the former in spite of having suffered horrific losses, the latter without doing so. It was this mobilization that enabled first the United States and then the USSR to build nuclear weapons, test them, and deploy thousands upon thousands of them.

At first, in and out of Europe, most people thought that nuclear weapons would result in even larger, more total, and more terrible wars. This, however, did not happen. Instead, two alliances were formed and confronted one another along a border almost two thousand miles long. Supported by their superpower patrons, on each side of the border European armies tried to rebuild themselves and to some extent they succeeded in doing so. The armed forces belonging to Warsaw Pact countries in Eastern Europe were modeled after those of the USSR, which dominated them so completely that they could hardly sneeze without asking permission first. Those of NATO enjoyed greater independence and, as a result, were not as homogeneous in terms of organization, equipment, training, or doctrine. Several Western European countries made strenuous efforts to hold on to their colonies, fighting wars and losing both the wars and the colonies. By 1970 these struggles were mostly over. This, left NATO's European members free to focus on their main task; namely, rebuilding so as to help deter a possible Soviet attack and defend against it in case it took place.

As the Cold War ended in 1989–1991 a wave of pacifism, which had been gathering in Western Europe for decades, became stronger still. It spilled over into the countries of Eastern Europe, many of which wanted nothing better than to join NATO and the European Union as soon as they could. The Baltic countries, Belarus, and Ukraine having gained their independence, Russia was thrown back almost to its 1750 borders, causing most Europeans to conclude that there was no threat left. Consequently European armed forces were cut and cut, to the point that, when those of NATO were called to intervene in Yugoslavia, they found themselves almost entirely helpless and dependent on American aid. Meanwhile, not only did much of the Russian armed forces remain intact—with its awesome nuclear arsenal, Russia continued to overshadow all the rest of the European countries combined—but new centers of military power emerged in India, China, and Japan; thus Europe's relative position in the world continued to shrink. As important from the European point of view, the Americans forged ahead implementing the RMA, widening the gap between themselves and their allies. All this was part cause, part effect, of a long-term historical process. Visiting the European continent just before 1900, the American-born inventor of the machine gun, Hiram Maxim (1840–1916), described it as an armed camp where people could scarcely wait to cut each other's throats. A century later the situation was reversed. With the very partial exception of Britain, the Continent had become debellicized.

This was the trend in Europe at the time of the bombing carried out by Al Qaeda in Madrid in 2004. By the early twenty-first century, the European Union had not reached a consensus about a course of action. It remains to be seen if this event convinces Europeans that war, although in different forms, is as relevant to their lives as it has ever been. On the other hand, should the struggle against terrorism erode European democracy, its commitment to human rights, its tolerance of minorities, and its openness to the rest of the world, then perhaps the point may be reached where the cure is worse than the disease.

See alsoCold War; Colonialism; Imperial Troops; Partisan Warfare; Terrorism; World War I; World War II.


Carver, Michael. War since 1945. London, 1986.

Citino, Robert M. Quest for Decisive Victory: From Stalemate to Blitzkrieg in Europe, 1899–1940. Lawrence, Kans., 2002.

——. Blitzkrieg to Desert Storm: The Evolution of Operational Warfare. Lawrence, Kans., 2004.

Kolko, Gabriel. Century of War: Politics, Conflict, and Society since 1914. New York, 1994.

Murray, Williamson, and Allan R. Murray, eds. Military Innovation in the Interwar Period. New York, 1996.

Sloan, Elinor Camille. The Revolution in Military Affairs: Implications for Canada and NATO. Montreal, 2002.

van Creveld, Martin. The Transformation of War. New York, 1991.

Martin van Creveld


views updated



City Walls. At the beginnings of urbanism in ancient Mesopotamia, city walls were constructed for defense from enemies and for the protection of livestock. Animals were driven inside the walls at night to provide safety from marauders and predators. Massive city walls signaled the might and wealth of the ruler. The Epic of Gilgamesh ends with praise for the city walls, whose foundations were made of kiln-fired brick. Siege warfare was a frequently employed military strategy, and texts mention battering rams. Kings boasted that victory was achieved after a city was taken and its walls destroyed. According to an Old Babylonian text that contains excerpts from older inscriptions:

Sargon, king of Agade, was victorious over Ur in battle, conquered the city and destroyed its wall. He conquered Eninmar, destroyed its walls, and conquered its district and Lagash as far as the sea. He washed his weapons in the sea.

He was victorious over Umma in battle, [conquered the city, and destroyed its walls]. (Frayne)

At the end of the third millennium b.c.e.. the inhabitants of the city of Ur were besieged by invading Amorites. A great wall was built to keep them away from major population centers. Nonetheless, the country eventually fell to the invaders. It is not known if the wall was dismantled at that time.

Conflict between Lagash and Umma. During the Early Dynastic period (circa 2900 - circa 2340 b.c.e..) populations increased and city-state leaders competed for control of arable lands. Between cities lay steppes, arid, treeless tracts used for hunting and herding. Modern scholars have speculated that the climate in the region may have become drier during this period, leading to even more competition for natural resources. City leaders became increasingly more militaristic and possibly more secular. Two of the leading southern city-states, Lagash and Umma, became embroiled in a border conflict. The war was described in ideological terms as a dispute between the patron deities of each city. From the point of view of the Lagash authors of a text describing the conflict, the chief god, Enlil, had drawn the borders between the two cities, but the rulers of Umma, upstream from Lagash, had “ripped out the stele (that marked the borders) and marched unto the plain of Lagash.” According to this text, after the boundaries had been re-established, the men of Umma again illegally occupied land. The text continues:

If the man of Umma, in order to carry off the fields crosses the boundary channel of Ningirsu (patron deity of Lagash) and the boundary channel of Nanshe (a Lagash goddess), be he a man from Umma or a foreigner, may Enlil destroy him, may Ningirsu after casting his great battle-net, place his hands and feet upon him. May the people of his own city, after rising up against him, kill him in the midst of his city! (Van de Mieroop)

A battle scene depicting heavily armed Lagash troops preparing for battle against Umma is preserved on a monument known as the Stele of the Vultures. The war dragged on for one hundred fifty years apparently without a clear resolution.

Weapons. Third millennium b.c.e.. stelae celebrating victory in war depict the king armed with bow and arrow. One monument, the Stele of the Vultures, shows three sorts of heavily armed warriors: soldiers wearing thick leather helmets and holding axes over their shoulders, another contingent carrying adzes, and a third forming a phalanx, with each man holding a large rectangular leather shield embossed with metal studs. The soldiers carry copper-tipped spears in their hands. A shell plaque from Mari on the middle Euphrates depicts a man carrying a spear and holding a large wicker shield. The shield, which curves above his head, provides head-to-toe protection. Beginning at the end of the second millennium b.c.e.., metal weapons

whose blades were sharpened on both sides were used for cutting and slashing. Swords were not employed during the third millennium b.c.e..; smelted iron was not available, and iron was needed to produce a weapon with a sharpened edge. Daggers made of copper or bronze were used instead. Slings, throwing sticks, nets, maces, and clubs were also employed in warfare during the third millennium b.c.e.. A gold helmet was excavated from the grave of Meskalam-dug, who was king of Ur during the Early Dynastic IIIA period (circa 2600 - circa 2500 b.c.e..). It was probably produced for a ceremonial purpose. Gold daggers have also been found in the royal graves.

Chariots. Wheeled vehicles that might loosely be termed chariots were used in war and in ceremonies. One side of the so-called Standard of Ur, a wood box with inlaid panels excavated from the mid-third millennium b.c.e.. Royal Cemetery at Ur, shows four-wheeled battle wagons carrying a driver and either a spear-wielding warrior or a warrior with battle-ax in hand. A quiver for the spears is located in the front of the vehicle. The battle wagons are drawn by four onagers (Asian asses). (Horses did not appear in the region until the end of the third millennium b.c.e..) The vehicle must have been extremely heavy; its

wheels were made of solid timber, and rotated behind linchpins on solid axles fixed to the underside of the carriage. This kind of vehicle was relatively slow and unwieldy. It was most likely a status object used primarily for display rather than actual combat. A two-wheeled battle cart is depicted on a slightly earlier stone plaque from Ur. In the Sumerian myth The Return of Ninurta to Nippur, the god’s shining chariot—with defeated enemies hung on the crosspiece of the yoke—is described as inspiring terrible awe. The true lightweight horse-drawn chariot did not appear until the middle of the second millennium b.c.e..

Troops. It is not known if Mesopotamian kings of the third millennium b.c.e.. maintained professional armed forces. Prior to Roman times, war was a seasonal activity. In emergencies any adult able-bodied male was conscripted into the armed forces. King Sargon of Akkad (circa 2334 -circa 2279 b.c.e..) claimed that 5,400 soldiers ate bread before him. Shulgi of Ur (circa 2094 - circa 2047 b.c.e..), stated that a unit of his spearmen was formed from among the male citizens of Ur. Chariot riders—men who could afford the cost of animals, equipment, and carriage—were among the elite. The foot soldier was the mainstay of the armed forces. Military uniforms are not evident in the preserved pictorial remains, which do show, however, that units of different status and ethnic background wore different styles of dress.

Spoils of War. After their defeat, cities were plundered. The king reserved a portion of the booty for himself, while another portion was presented as gifts to the shrines of the gods. Victorious forces are known to have desecrated temples and stolen or destroyed cult statues and decorative items. The bodies of defeated foes are described in myths as being heaped in mounds after battle. Reliefs show the enemy, stripped of all clothing, lying dead on the battlefield. Others are bound with their elbows tied behind their backs. Prisoners of war could be held for ransom, employed in forced labor, or resettled. Male prisoners of war might be blinded and enslaved; some worked carrying buckets filled with water for irrigation of fields and gardens. Young women were assigned to work in weaving mills and temples. In the Neo-Babylonian period (625–539 b.c.e..)— when there was a great need for labor to construct canals, roads, temples, and palaces—most prisoners of war were settled on the land as palace workmen or were presented by the kings to the temples to be employed as temple workmen.

Old Babylonian Period Warfare. In the Old Babylonian period (circa 1894 - circa 1595 b.c.e..) the king granted state land to selected members of the elite, who in return served in the army. Others worked state-owned land to satisfy their obligation to provide royal service. The army was composed of many units, some formed from various ethnic groups. New innovations in chariot equipment—such as the development of the mouth bit—allowed for greater control but battle still meant the clash of two infantries. Letters mention contingents of three hundred men and armies of between ten thousand and sixty thousand. Most warfare consisted of raids on outposts or caravans. Old Babylonian legal codes indicate that soldiers who refused to go on military campaigns were to be put to death. If a soldier hired someone to take his place, he could also be killed. Captured prisoners of war could be ransomed by relatives.

Warfare in the Later Second Millennium b.c.e.. (circa 1600 - circa 1000 b.c.e..). The most significant changes in the methods of warfare came about as the result of the introduction of the true chariot, a horse-drawn lightweight vehicle with two spoked wheels. The vehicle carried two men, the driver and an archer armed with a composite bow. Perhaps originally intended as a hunting vehicle, it quickly became adapted to warfare as a mobile firing platform. At the height of their popularity, chariots were in use from Greece in the west, to Egypt, across the Near East, to India.

The Neo-Assyrian Period (934 – 610 b.c.e..). In the first millennium b.c.e.. iron succeeded bronze and other copper alloys as the major metal for weapons and armor. Reliefs and archaeological finds attest to changes in chariot design. In the late eighth century b.c.e.. some Assyrian chariots had eight-spoked wheels and carried as many as four men, such as monarch, driver, bowman, and shield bearer. Some chariots carried leaders shooting with bow and arrow. Development of the bridle made it possible for cavalry to develop independent of chariotry. Since saddles and stirrups were not yet in use, a rider sat on a horse blanket and employed his weaponry. In one battle the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III (858–824 b.c.e..) faced an enemy who was said to have had twelve hundred chariots and an equal number of cavalrymen. In the middle of the seventh century the cavalry had become a major battle weapon, while chariots were mostly used in ceremonial contexts, such as royal hunts. The majority of soldiers were infantrymen. The army had units of various sizes; the basic unit was a company consisting of fifty men under the command of a captain called the “Head of the Fifty,” or “The Head of the Company.” Troops wore protective gear. The lower orders of men wore leather in battle; higher-ranking troops were clothed in armor with overlapping metal scales. Professional corps of soldiers wore pointed metal helmets. Foreign troops—often allied with the Assyrians by terms of treaty—wore their native dress. Although scholars caution that royal inscriptions are laudatory texts rather than objective records, inscriptions indicate that armed forces might have numbered into the hundreds of thousands. Annual campaigns led by the Neo-Assyrian kings or by their commanders were commonplace. They began in the spring, once the winter rains had ceased.

Assyrian Royal Annals. Royal annals written in Akkadian at the court of the Assyrian kings are the most important historical source for reconstructing Assyrian conquests during the first part of the first millennium b.c.e.. Beginning in the thirteenth century b.c.e.. they provide accounts of annual military campaigns. A major problem in assessing their historical accuracy is that the annals magnify achievements and distort historical events in the king’s favor. They are addressed to the gods and most likely to posterity, and they include royal boasts designed to show that the king was governing in rapport with the will of the gods. Considerations of fact and objectivity are secondary to emphasis on military success and royal achievement. The annals are filled with hyperbole and gross exaggerations of booty, tribute, and numbers of enemy fatalities; yet, they also include valuable and often vivid descriptions of ancient warfare. Ashurnasirpal II (883–859 b.c.e..) dramatically recounted a military advance into a mountainous region:

The (enemy) troops were frightened (and) took to a rugged mountain. Since the mountain was exceptionally rugged I did not pursue them. The mountain was as jagged(?) as the blade of a dagger and therein no winged bird of the sky flew. Like the nest of the udinu-bird their fortress was situated within the mountain which none of the kings my fathers had penetrated. For three days the hero (the king) explored the mountain. His bold heart yearned for battle. He ascended on foot (and) overwhelmed the mountain. He smashed their nest (and) scattered their flock. I felled 200 of their fighting men with the sword (and) carried off a multitude of captives like a flock of sheep. With their blood I dyed the mountains red like wool, (and) the rest of them the ravines (and) torrents of the mountain swallowed. (Grayson)

King Sennacherib of Assyria (704–681 b.c.e..) described in vivid detail a battle with the Elamites in 691 b.c.e..:

At the command of the god Ashur, the great Lord, I rushed upon the enemy like the approach of a hurricane. … I put them to rout and turned them back. I transfixed the troops of the enemy with javelins and arrows. … I cut their throats like sheep… . My prancing steeds, trained to harness, plunged into their welling blood as into a river, the wheels of my battle chariot were bespattered with blood and filth. I filled the plain with the corpses of their warriors like herbage. (Luckenbill)

In 646 b.c.e.. Ashurbanipal (668 - circa 627 b.c.e..) sacked the Elamite city of Susa, describing its destruction in his annals:

I tore out the raging wild bull-(figures), the attachments of the gates; the temple of Elam I destroyed so that they ceased to exist. I counted their gods and goddesses as powerless ghosts. Into their hidden groves into which no stranger goes, whose bounds he does not enter, my battle troops penetrated, beheld its hidden (place), burnt it with fire. The burial places of their early (and) later kings, who had not feared Ashur and Ishtar, my lords, (and) who had made my royal predecessors tremble, I devastated, I destroyed (and) let them see the sun; their bones I removed to Assyria. I laid restlessness on their spirits. Food-offerings (to the dead) and water-libations I denied them. For the distance of one month (and) 25 days, I devastated the region of Elam. Salt and cress I sowed over them. (Streck)

Ashurbanipal brought the severed head of the Elamite king back to Assyria, where it was displayed in public: “I, Ashurbanipal, king of Assyria publicly set up the head of Teumman, king of Elam, opposite the towers of the city-center.” Scenes depicting soldiers with the severed heads of the enemy were also carved on the walls of Assyrian palaces.

Siege Warfare. Under the Assyrians, siege warfare became highly developed. Faced with strong enemy garrisons and well-fortified walls, ramps, and ramparts, Assyrian engineers developed new innovative forms of attack. Special battering rams mounted on enclosed wheeled platforms—like primitive tanks—were used to batter walls. Archers ensconced in turrets on top of these machines shot at defenders atop walls. In turn the enemy tried to burn these machines by throwing lit torches at their wooden frames. They also attempted to loop chains around a battering ram and pull it from its machine. While the battering ram attacked from one direction, Assyrian warriors scaled ladders placed against walls. They also built earthen ramps to the tops of defensive ramparts so that a battering ram could be pushed up a ramp and used on the upper portion or top of a wall. Diggers burrowed under walls to weaken or collapse them. Fires were set at wooden gates while defenders shot arrows, threw spears, dropped rocks, and poured scalding liquids on the attacker below. If all else failed, the Assyrians prolonged the siege until the inhabitants capitulated or starved.

Prisoners of War. The Assyrian annals and palace reliefs also depict the Assyrian treatment of defeated foes. They describe in graphic terms how enemies were slaughtered en masse, hung on stakes, flayed, or blinded. Hands, heads, or lower lips were cut off for the purpose of counting the numbers of dead. From the eighth century b.c.e.. onward the Assyrian kings practiced a policy of mass forced deportations. The deportees were made to gather up what baggage they could carry and travel on foot. They were resettled hundreds of miles from their native territories. Such cruelty had a decided psychological effect on surrounding peoples. On hearing of such acts of terror, many chose to surrender rather than offer resistance.


Jerrold S. Cooper, Reconstructing History from Ancient Inscriptions: The Lagash-Umma Border Conflict, Sources from the Ancient Near East, volume 2, fasc. 1 (Malibu, Cal: Undena, 1983).

Robert Drews, The End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe ca. 1200 B.C. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993).

Douglas Frayne, Sargonic and Gutian Periods (2334–2113 B.C.), The Royal Inscriptions of Mesopotamia: Early Periods 3 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993).

Albert. K. Grayson, Assyrian Royal Inscriptions, 2 volumes (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1972, 1976).

Mary A. Littauer and J. H. Crouwel, Wheeled Vehicles and Ridden Animals in the Ancient Near East (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1979).

Daniel D. Luckenbill, The Annals of Sennacherib (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1924).

Bustenay Oded, Mass Deportations and Deportees in the Neo-Assyrian Empire (Wiesbaden: Reichert, 1979).

J. N. Postgate, “War and Peace,” in his Early Mesopotamia: Society and Economy at the Dawn of History, revised edition (London: Routledge, 1994), pp. 241–259.

Jack M. Sasson, The Military Establishment at Mart, Studia Pohl 3 (Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1969).

Maximilian Streck, Assurbanipal und die letzten assyrischen köige bis zum untergang Niniveh’s (Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs, 1916).

Marc Van de Mieroop, A History of the Ancient Near East, ca. 3000–323 B.C. (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2004).


views updated


During the Renaissance, warfare became more frequent and much more destructive than in the Middle Ages. New technology, especially the introduction of gunpowder weapons and artillery, changed the nature of war. With the rise of more centralized states came the establishment of large standing armies. Some scholars have described the developments in the period between 1350 and 1600 as a military revolution.


Medieval* warfare was limited in scope, often involving conflicts between individual nobles or between a noble and a prince*. However, during the Renaissance some princes, particularly in France and Spain, grew much more powerful than their neighbors. In addition, some European rulers pursued a policy of building their kingdoms by conquering independent territories. War ceased to be a local affair. It often involved troops from many different lands who fought on soil far from home.

Causes of Wars. In the Renaissance wars were generally fought to defend one's territory, to acquire more territory for the state, or to gain control of the monarchy. Many European wars of the period involved disputes over inherited titles and territories. For example, the Wars of Italy (1494–1559) began because King Charles VIII of France claimed to be the rightful heir to the kingdom of Naples. However, the English monarchy's campaigns of conquest against Ireland and Scotland did not rest on any claims of inheritance but were driven by the desire to enlarge the kingdom. The Spanish and French kingdoms also grew by annexing* territory, often by warfare.

Other factors had an impact on warfare. The chivalric* ideal, which flourished during the Renaissance, led many men to fight for honor or glory. This attitude was common among the nobility, and even some mercenary* captains, for whom war was a profession, would engage in combat for reasons of honor. Religious differences played a role in many Renaissance wars (most notably the Thirty Years' War), but few conflicts were based solely on religion. Nevertheless, religious matters typically increased the bitterness of fighting and complicated the process of making peace.

While princes fought for power, glory, and honor, the common soldier often had different reasons for joining the military. Defending one's country was a powerful motive, but soldiers were often lured by the prospect of adventure and the opportunity to enrich themselves by looting towns or defeated enemies. Some men took up soldiering as a way to escape trouble, debts, or an unhappy family life. Many simply needed the employment and wages offered by military service.

Major Renaissance Wars. Important wars occurred in almost every part of Europe during the Renaissance. The Hundred Years' War (1337–1453) between France and England was fought to determine how much control England would have over French territory. It ended with England holding only the port of Calais. Besides battling each other, both the French and English monarchies struggled to maintain control at home. English nobles fought one another for power in the civil wars known as the Wars of the Roses (1452–1487). France waged wars to add Brittany and Burgundy to the kingdom.

The Wars of Italy began as an attempt by France's King Charles VIII to claim Naples as his inheritance. His invasion in 1494 set off a series of wars for control over Italy that lasted for more than 60 years. The major combatants were France, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire*. By 1525 Spain had emerged as the clear winner and the most powerful kingdom in Europe. At home, the Spanish monarchy waged war against the Muslim kingdoms that had existed in southern Spain for hundreds of years. Granada, the last Muslim stronghold, fell in 1492.

Religious violence in France led to a long civil war during the late 1500s. The Wars of Religion (1562–1598), which went through various phases of fighting, were a particularly bitter chapter in French history. The conflicts resulted in the assassination of several noble figures and the killing of several thousand Protestants and others at the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre in 1572. Religious differences also led to the Thirty Years' War (1618–1648). Although it began as a dispute between German princes and the Holy Roman Emperor, it grew into a war that involved almost every major power in Europe. Some scholars say that the Thirty Years' War marked the political end of the Renaissance.


Historians generally agree that a military revolution occurred during the Renaissance, marking the start of the development of modern warfare. They have different views, however, on the timing of this revolution and propose dates ranging from the mid-1300s to the end of the 1600s. The first part of the military revolution was the growth in the size of armed forces. Armies expanded steadily from about 1350 to 1550. By 1500 all European states except England supported the idea of a standing army. Following the increase in military forces came the introduction of new, sturdier fortifications. Spain built a chain of fortifications to defend the state from internal and external attack. By 1600 the rest of Europe had begun developing costly defensive works along with larger armies.

Significant advances in military technology occurred during this period as well and profoundly changed the nature of warfare. Technology was applied to both offensive and defensive warfare, and the dominant military strategy shifted from defense to offense and then back again to defense during the Renaissance. In addition, the increasing use of mercenaries made war a more professional undertaking.

Soldiers. All adult male subjects of a kingdom were eligible for military service. However, armies consisted largely of people from two groups in society—the aristocrats who managed the war and the lower classes who fought it. In most states, captains recruited soldiers from certain areas, but there were never enough volunteers to fill out the ranks of the army. Many men were pressed into service, but others dodged the military or deserted as soon as they had the chance. As a result, states relied heavily on mercenaries to fight their wars. Many Italian states used hired soldiers in the 1300s and 1400s, and eventually the practice spread to northern Europe.

Mercenaries had many advantages over citizens as soldiers. They were better fighters and much better disciplined, which had benefits both on and off the battlefield. Soldiers dismissed at the end of a war were often penniless, and many of them formed outlaw bands to harass the peasants. Mercenaries, by contrast, could be trusted to return home with their pay and not cause problems. Many mercenary captains were nobles who had turned to military service because of the poverty of their lands.

Weapons and Tactics. Gunpowder and artillery dramatically changed the nature of warfare during the Renaissance. Defenders discovered that castles that withstood the attack of catapults (devices for hurling stones) and other forms of medieval artillery could be brought down by gunpowder artillery. During the Hundred Years' War, the French developed new artillery tactics. They used small, easy-to-move cannons to attack English castles and fortified towns, and the high, thin walls of medieval castles collapsed under the repeated battering of French cannons.

Because castles no longer provided a secure stronghold, armies were forced out into the open to fight. This led to offensive warfare involving battles fought by large armies that produced heavy casualties. The standard battlefield arrangement was a large square formation of soldiers with pikes (long poles topped by a blade). Cavalry stood alongside the pikemen, and a line of crossbowmen marched in front to provide covering fire for the infantry.

In the early 1500s the Italians developed a new type of fortress that could stand up to gunpowder artillery. Its walls were lower and thicker, making them harder to hit and to destroy. These fortresses were also designed to hold defensive guns. By the mid-1500s defensive tactics had the advantage again, and siege* warfare replaced open battlefield conflicts. A dense square made up of pikemen and soldiers carrying early firearms called harquebuses became the main military formation.

As firearms became more efficient, they began to take on an offensive role. Gunners arranged in lines rather than squares could concentrate their firepower and wreak havoc on tight formations of pikemen. As a result, new infantry formations emerged in which the men were deployed in shallower lines. By the late 1600s, thin lines of men with firearms had replaced the large bodies of pikemen in most armies. Heavy cavalry, which had dominated the medieval battlefield, never regained its importance. However, new formations of light cavalry emerged at this time. Finally, large standing armies were established in most countries.

Naval warfare also changed with the use of gunpowder. The main fighting vessel in the early Renaissance was the galley, a long, narrow ship driven by oars and sails. Naval battles involved trying to get close enough to put soldiers aboard an enemy's vessels and fight a sort of land battle at sea. By the 1400s, sailors were effectively adapting land cannons for use in naval warfare. However, galleys could carry very few cannons and little ammunition. Shipbuilders designed larger sailing ships such as caravels and galleons with separate decks to hold guns.

By the end of the 1500s, gunfire rather than close-range fighting was deciding most important sea battles. Cannon played a key role in the Battle of Lepanto, a famous conflict in 1571 between the Ottoman Turks* and Christian forces. More than 500 ships took part. The Christian ships, which had bigger guns, fired at point-blank range. The Turks lost about 200 ships and thousands of men in the ferocious one-day battle.

(See alsoArms and Armor; Fortifications; Mercenaries; Ships and Shipbuilding. )

* medieval

referring to the Middle Ages, a period that began around a.d. 400 and ended around 1400 in Italy and 1500 in the rest of Europe

* prince

Renaissance term for the ruler of an independent state

* annex

to add a territory to an existing area

* chivalric

referring to the rules and customs of medieval knighthood

* mercenary

hired soldier

see color plate 13, vol. 2

* Holy Roman Empire

political body in central Europe composed of several states; existed until 1806

see color plate 11, vol. 4

Heavy Metal

The design of Renaissance cannons differed significantly from those used in later eras. Early illustrations from around 1326 show cannons shaped like a vase or bottle that apparently fired projectiles resembling large arrows. Most cannons were cast in brass, bronze, or another alloy containing copper. This was because most early cannons were produced by bell makers, who used the techniques and materials with which they were familiar. Some cannons had barrels composed of flat bars of wrought iron arranged in a circle and held tightly together by iron hoops. The most famous large siege gun of the Renaissance, known as Mons Meg, was constructed by this method. It reportedly could fire a 330-pound stone ball a distance of up to two miles.

see color plate 12, vol. 2

* siege

prolonged effort to force a surrender by surrounding a fortress or town with armed troops, cutting the area off from aid

* Ottoman Turks

Turkish followers of Islam who founded the Ottoman Empire in the 1300s; the empire eventually included large areas of eastern Europe, the Middle East, and northern Africa


views updated


views updated

war·fare / ˈwôrˌfe(ə)r/ • n. engagement in or the activities involved in war or conflict: guerrilla warfare.