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Best Defense

Military structure and change (II): The dilemma presented by a major innovation

More on the dilemmas of change in the military.


More on the dilemmas of change in the military:

In the 18th century, the best response of infantry to cavalry charges had been to form a tight square. Then, as I understand it, first line kneels, second line sort of squats, and third line stands. As they face a cavalry charge, they fire as often as they can, but then, as the horsemen come upon them, they hold their muskets steady. These reached out five feet or more, and were topped with bayonets two feet long. Bayonets were a surprisingly recent invention — first they fit directly into the muzzle, but around 1678 the ring or socket bayonette came along. This made infantry able both to fire and defend themselves, which in turn made pikes less necessary, and freed up pikeholders to be musketmen.

But change never stops. By 1800, field artillery — a new branch, different from stationary guns — was changing this equation. The more infantry squares you formed, and the tighter they were, the better your defense against cavalry was. But those same squares also made great targets for the increasingly important (and accurate) light cannons being fielded.

The more I read about Napoleonic-era field artillery, the more I think it was the cyberwar of its time. It was new, unsettling, and technical, and its practitioners were seen as not really gentlemen by the other officers. Don’t forget that Napoleon comes out of this new branch. I wonder if the great general of the 21st century will be a hacker?

The move from small militaries to mass forces was part of the solution to the problem of field guns killing infantrymen: Get more men. “With the manpower resources of entire nations behind them, commanders could hold human life cheap, no longer capital to be saved as much as possible, but income to be expended,” writes Gunther Rothenberg. As William McNeill puts it, France by raising mass armies managed to trim its excess population and also export hundreds of thousands of hungry stomachs to be fed off the land as they marched through other countries, mainly Belgium, Germany and Italy.

Franz Moritz Brückner/Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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