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WORLD Military History

Posted by horasio on July 24, 2009


Military history is a humanities discipline within the scope of general historical recording of armed conflict in the history of humanity, and its impact on the societies, their cultures, economies and changing intra and international relationships.

A conflict may range from a melee between two tribal groups to conflicts between national militaries, and a world war of coalitions affecting the majority of the global human population. Military historians record and analyse the events of military history, the product of which forms an important part of how societies and their leaders formulate future plans and policies for societal development.[1]

While human conflict has been a constant factor in the process of human social evolution over thousands of years, its historical recording only spans six millennia. There is much disagreement about when it began.[2]

Some believe it has always been with us, derived from conflicts with other species; others stress the lack of clear evidence for it in our prehistoric past, and the fact that many peaceful, non-aggressive societies have, and still do exist (See Otterbein, Fry and Kelly in bibliography below). In War Before Civilization, Lawrence H. Keeley,[3] says that approximately 90-95% of known societies engaged in at least occasional warfare, and many fought constantly.[4]

The essential subjects of military history study are the decision making processes of the belligerents, the society’s willingness and ability to economically support war, the methods, strategic, operational and tactical used by the armed forces to achieve goals, and how these changed through the past 5,000 years of recorded history.

Through the study of history, the military command seeks to not repeat past mistakes, and improve upon its current performance by instilling an ability in commanders to perceive historical parallels during a battle, so as to capitalize on the lessons learned from the past. The main areas military history includes past conflicts, their sustainment, military command, application of doctrine known as military art and science, and the application of technology in specific military services.

The discipline of military history is dynamic, changing with development as much of the subject area as the societies and organisations that make use of it.[5] The dynamic nature of the discipline of military history is largely related to the rapidity of change the military forces, and the art and science of managing them, as well as the frenetic pace of technological development that had taken place during the period known as the Industrial Revolution, and more recently in the nuclear and information ages.

How the change is studied, has as much to do with methods used by military historians, as the influence on these methods which are often biased towards being primarily European and technological,[6] revolutionising how warfare is understood when compared to the previous history. This process has necessitated a periodisation of history to highlight the short spans of dramatic change between increasingly shorter periods of relative stability in development of military forces.

Historiography of military history

Historiography is the study of the record of military conflict to gain an accurate assessment of past conflicts that may prove difficult because of bias, even in ancient times, and systematic propaganda in more modern times. For this reason military history is periodised, creating overlaying boundaries of study and analysis in which descriptions of battles by leaders may be unreliable due to the inclination to minimize mention of failures, and exaggerate when boasting of successes when viewed at a later time. This is the reason for historiographical analysis, to allow an unbiased, contemporary view of records as the participants would have perceived the events.[7]

One military historian, Jeremy Black in a recent work raised a number of issues 21st century military historians face as an inheritance of their predecessors: Eurocentricity, a technological bias, and fascination with technology, a focus on leading military powers and dominant military systems, the separation of land from sea, and more recently air conflicts, the focus on state-to-state conflict, a lack of focus on political “tasking” in how forces are used.[6]

If the above challenges were not sufficient for the military historians, the limitations of current methodological approaches are further complicated by the lacking of record either destroyed, or never recorded for its value as a military secret that may prevent some salient facts from being reported at all; scholars still do not know the nature of Greek fire for instance. Despite these limitations, wars are some of the most studied and detailed periods of human history.

The documentation of military history begins with the confrontation between Sumer (current Iraq) and Elam (current Iran) c.2700 BCE near the modern Basra, and includes such enduring records as the Hebrew Bible. Other prominent records in military history are the Trojan War in Homer‘s Iliad (though its historicity has been challenged), The Histories by Herodotus (484 BC – 425 BC) who, along with Thucydides (460 BC – 395 BC), is often called “father of history”,[8] the latter being regarded as the first scientific historian due to his dismissing the notions of deities taking active part in history.

His impartiality, despite being an Athenian, allowed him to take advantage of his exile to research the war from different perspectives by carefully examining documents, and interviewing eyewitnesses.[9] The approach centered around the analysis of a leader was taken by Xenophon (430 BC – 355 BC) in Anabasis, recording the expedition of Cyrus the Younger into Anatolia.

A comparative approach is made possible by the records of Julius Caesar (100 BC – 44 BC), for campaigns such as Commentarii de Bello Gallico and Commentarii de Bello Civili.

Some other more recent prominent military historians include Hans Delbrück (1848-1929), Charles Oman (1860-1946), Basil Liddell Hart (1895-1970), Martin van Creveld, John Keegan, William Ledyard Rodgers, Lynn Montross, Cornelius Ryan, R. Ernest & Trevor N. Dupuy (1916-1995), George F.G. Stanley (1907-2002), John Terraine (1921-2003), Victor Davis Hanson and Jeremy Black

For settled agrarian civilizations, the infantry would become the core of military action. The infantry started as opposing armed groups of soldiers underneath commanders. The Greeks used rigid, heavily-armed phalanxes, but the Romans used mobile legions that were easily maneuverable.

Cavalry would become an important tool. In the Sicilian Expedition, led by Athens in an attempt to subdue Syracuse, the well-trained Syracusan cavalry became crucial to the success of the Syracusans. Macedonian Alexander the Great effectively deployed his cavalry forces to secure victories. In later battles, like the Battle of Cannae of the Second Punic War, the importance of the cavalry would be repeated.

Hannibal was able to surround the Romans on three sides and encircled them by sending the cavalry to the rear of the army. There were also horse archers, who had the ability to shoot on horseback – the Mongols were especially fearsome with this tactic. In the Middle Ages, armored cataphracts continued to fight on horseback.

Even in the First World War, cavalry was still considered important; the British mobilized 165,000 horses, the Austrians 600,000, the Germans 715,000, and the Russians more than a million.[10]

The early Indo-Iranians developed the use of chariots in warfare. The scythed chariot was later invented in India and soon adopted by the Persian Empire.

War elephants were often deployed for fighting in ancient warfare. They were first used in India and later adopted by both the Persians and Alexander the Great against one another. War elephants were also used in the Battle of the Hydaspes River, and by Hannibal in the Second Punic War against the Romans.(The effectiveness of war elephants in a battle is a matter of debate)

There were also organizational changes, made possible by better training and intercommunication. Combined arms was the concept of using infantry, cavalry, and artillery in a coordinated way. The Romans, Swiss, and others made advances with this, which arguably led to them being unbeatable for centuries.

Naval warfare was often crucial to military success. Early navies used sailing ships without cannons; often the goal was to ram the enemy ships and cause them to sink.

There was human oar power, often using slaves, built up to ramming speed. Galleys were used in the 3rd millennium BC by the Cretans. The Greeks later advanced these ships.

In 1210 BC, the first recorded naval battle was fought between Suppiluliuma II, king of the Hittites, and Cyprus, which was defeated. In the Persian Wars, the navy became of increasing importance.

Triremes were involved in more complicated sea-land operations. Themistocles helped to build up a stronger Greek navy, composed of 310 ships, and defeated the Persians at the Battle of Salamis, ending the Persian invasion of Greece.[11]

In the First Punic War, the war between Carthage and Rome started with an advantage to Carthage because of their naval experience. A Roman fleet was built in 261 BC, with the addition of the corvus that allowed Roman soldiers onboard the ships to board the enemy ships. The bridge would prove effective at the Battle of Mylae, resulting in a Roman victory.

The Vikings, in the 8th century AD, invented a ship propelled by oars with a dragon decorating the prow, hence called the Drakkar. The 12th century CE Song Dynasty invented ships with watertight bulk head compartments while the 2nd century BCE Han Dynasty invented rudders and sculled oars for their warships.

Fortifications are important in warfare. Early hill-forts were used to protect inhabitants in the Iron Age. They were primitive forts surrounded by ditches filled with water.[12]

Forts were then built out of mud bricks, stones, wood, and other available materials. Romans used rectangular fortresses built out of wood and stone. As long as there have been fortifications, there have been contraptions to break in, dating back to the times of Romans and earlier. Siege warfare is often necessary to capture forts.

Some of the military unit types and technologies which were used in the medieval period are:

Bows and arrows were often used by combatants. Egyptians shot arrows from chariots effectively. The crossbow was developed around 500 BC in China, and was used a lot in the Middle Ages.[13] The English/Welsh longbow from the 12th century also became important in the Middle Ages. It helped to give the English a large early advantage in the Hundred Years’ War, even though the English were eventually defeated. It dominated battlefields for over a century.

In the 10th century, the invention of gunpowder led to many new weapons that were improved over time. Blackpowder was used in China since the 4th century, but it was not used as a weapon until the 11th century.

Until the mid-15th century, guns were held in one hand, while the explosive charge was ignited by the other hand. Then came the matchlock, which was used widely until around the 1720s. Leonardo da Vinci made drawings of the wheel lock which made its own sparks. Eventually, the matchlock was replaced by the flintlock.

Cannons were first used in Europe in the early 14th century, and played a vital role in the Hundred Years’ War. The first cannons were simply welded metal bars in the form of a cylinder, and the first cannonballs were made of stone. By 1346, at the battle of Crécy, the cannon had been used; at the Battle of Agincourt they would be used again.[14]

At the beginning of the 16th century, the first European fire ships were used. Ships were filled with flammable materials, set on fire, and sent to enemy lines. This tactic was successfully used by Francis Drake to scatter the Spanish Armada at the Battle of Gravelines,[15] and would later be used by the Chinese, Russians, Greeks, and several other countries in naval battles.

Naval mines were invented in the 17th century, though they were not used in great numbers until the American Civil War. They were used heavily in the First World War and Second World War.

The first model of submarine was invented in 1624 by Cornelius Drebbel, which could go to depth of 15 feet (5 m). However, the first war submarine as we presently think of it was constructed in 1885 by Isaac Peral.

The Turtle was developed by David Bushnell during the American Revolution. Robert Fulton then improved the submarine design by creating the Nautilus (submarine).[16]

The Howitzer, a type of field artillery, was developed in 17th century to fire high trajectory explosive shells at targets that could not be reached by flat trajectory projectiles.

Bayonets also became of wide usage to infantry soldiers. Bayonet is named after Bayonne, France where it was first manufactured in the 16th century. It is used often in infantry charges to fight in hand-to-hand combat. General Jean Martinet introduced the bayonet to the French army. They were used a lot in the American Civil War, and continued to be used in modern wars like the Invasion of Iraq.

Balloons were first used in warfare at the end of the 18th century. It was first introduced in Paris of 1783; the first balloon traveled over 5 miles (8 km). Previously military scouts could only see from high points on the ground, or from the mast of a ship. Now they could be high in the sky, signalling to troops on the ground. This made it much more difficult for troop movements to go unobserved.

At the end of the 18th century, iron-cased rockets were successfully used militarily in India against the British by Tipu Sultan of the Kingdom of Mysore during the Anglo-Mysore Wars. Rockets were generally inaccurate at that time, though William Hale, in 1844, was able to develop a better rocket. The new rocket no longer needed the rocket stick, and had a higher accuracy.

In the 1860s there were a series of advancements in rifles. The first repeating rifle was designed in 1860 by a company bought out by Winchester, which made new and improved versions. Springfield rifles arrived in the mid-19th century also. Machine guns arrived in the middle of the 19th century. Automatic rifles and light machine guns first arrived at the beginning of the 20th century.

Also in the 1860s came the first boats that would later be known as torpedo boats. These were first used in the American Civil War, but generally were not successful. Several Confederates used spar torpedoes, which were bombs on long poles designed to attach to boats. In the later part of the 19th century, the self-propelled torpedo was developed. The HNoMS Rap

At the start of the World Wars, various nations had developed weapons that were a surprise to their adversaries, leading to a need to learn from this, and alter how to combat them. Flame throwers were first used in the first world war. The French were the first to introduce the armored car in 1902. Then in 1918, the British produced the first armored troop carrier. Many early tanks were proof of concept but impractical until further development. In World War I, the British and French held a crucial advantage due to their superiority in tanks; the Germans had only a few dozen A7V tanks, as well as 170 captured tanks. The British and French both had over several hundred each. The French tanks included the 13 ton Schnedier-Creusot, with a 75 mm gun, and the British had the Mark IV and Mark V tanks.[17]

Maxim Machine Gun

On December 17, 1903, the Wright Brothers performed the first controlled, powered, heavier-than-air flight; it went 39 meters (120 ft). In 1907, the first helicopter flew, but it wasn’t practical for usage. Aviation became important in World War I, in which several aces gained fame. In 1911 an aircraft took off from a warship for the first time. It was a cruiser. Take-offs were soon perfected, but deck landings on a cruiser were another matter. This led to the development of an aircraft carrier with a decent unobstructed flight deck.

Chemical warfare exploded into the public consciousness in World War I but may have been used in earlier wars without as much human attention. The Germans used gas-filled shells at the Battle of Bolimov on January 3, 1915. These were not lethal, however. In April 1915, the Germans developed a chlorine gas that was highly lethal, and used it to great effect at Second Battle of Ypres.[18]

World War II gave rise to even more technology. The worth of the aircraft carrier was proved in the battles between the United States and Japan like the Battle of Midway. Radar was independently invented by the Allies and Axis powers. It used radio waves to detect nearby objects. Molotov cocktails were invented by the Finns in 1939, during the Winter War. The atomic bomb was developed by the Manhattan Project and launched at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, ultimately ending World War II.

During the Cold War, even though fighting did not actually occur, the superpowers – the United States and Russia – engaged in a race to develop and increase the level of technology available for military purposes. In the space race, both nations attempted to launch human beings into space to the moon. Other technological advances centered around intelligence (like the spy satellite) and missiles (ballistic missiles, cruise missiles). Nuclear submarine, invented in 1955. This meant submarines no longer had to surface as often, and could run more quietly. They evolved into becoming underwater missile platforms. Cruise missiles were invented in Nazi Germany during World War II in the form of the V-1.


Periods of military history

The influence of technology on military history, and evident Eurocentrism are nowhere more pronounced then in the attempt by the military historians to divide their subject area into more manageable periods of analysis. While general discipline of history subdivides history into Ancient history (Classical antiquity), Middle Ages (Europe, 4th century – 15th century), Early modern period (Europe, 14th century – 18th century), Modern era (Europe, 18th century – 20th century), and the Post-Modern (USA, 1949 – Present), the periodisation below stresses technological change in its emphasis, particularly the crucial dramatic change during the Gunpowder warfare period.

Periodisation is not uniformly applied through time and space, affirming the claims of Eurocentrism from regional historians. For example what might be described as ancient warfare is still practised in a number of parts of the world. Other eras that are distinct in European history, such as the era of Medieval warfare, may have little relevance in East Asia.


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