“The heavens appeared to weep in sympathy…” Ancient and Medieval Naval Power

A few weeks ago, I published an article that looked at the logistical constraints faced by the Crusader armies and the Muslim Sultanate during the Third Crusade. It was while researching this that I became fascinated with the subject of ancient and medieval naval power. Lacking all but the most rudimentary navigation and communication capabilities, the navies of ancient and medieval kingdoms nevertheless were capable of incredible military feats and breathtaking displays of power and brutality.

Ancient Naval Power

Die Seeschlacht bei Salamis – 1868 (by Wilhelm von Kaulbach)

With naval forces of the ancient world largely littoral in nature, there were some similarities between naval strategy and tactics with those of ground forces. However, the unique requirements and capabilities of naval power were appreciated as well. Naval forces were far more expensive and required a certain level of specialized training to be effective. As with land warfare, coordination of efforts between large numbers of forces was critical, and that would seem to be even more so for naval vessels spread out across a wide sea.

Looking at the famous Battle of Salamis in 480 B.C., Greek city-states that did not normally fight together somehow worked well enough as a cohesive force to defeat the invading Persians and her allies. This indicates that there was likely a commonality in their training on which these forces based their tactics. In addition, although vessels could be positioned in the darkness of night, actually fighting appeared to be impossible outside of the day. Consider that Xerxes was eager to crush the remaining Greek forces, but had to wait upon reaching them because the day “was too far spent for them to begin the battle, since night already approached.”[1]

In The History of Herodotus, the historian provided a convincing description on why the Athenian Themistocles wanted to

The Greek Trireme dominated naval warfare for centuries in the central Mediterranean.
The Greek Trireme dominated naval warfare for centuries in the central Mediterranean.

confront the Persians close to Salamis.[2] The Greeks took advantage the narrow sea lanes formed by the straits at Salamis to draw the Persian forces into a choke point that deprived them effective use of their superior numbers.[3] For the Athenians, there was both a combat advantage to battling close to the island, as well as command and control consideration (fighting closer to the isthmus would potentially tempt some of the non-Athenian Greeks to flee so they could defend their home cities). Plus, there were additional considerations that needed to be addressed, such as access to land and allies for the crew if a vessel sank.[4]

Polybius’ description of fleet formations in The Histories some 200 years later during the First Punic War were also incredibly detailed, and indicated significant communication and training requirements.[5] He painted an impressive picture of the battle, from the “six-banked galleys” of the Roman commanders, to the increasing spacing between the following vessels to form a wedge. He included the number of vessels, how they were arrayed, and the effects of the nearby terrain and open ocean on tactics and strategy.

As one seeks to understand Carthaginian or Persian tactical decisions and strategic objectives, however, additional sources from those sides would be much more valuable. Not too many historians would likely ascribe Xerxes’ decision to face off with the Greek navy at Salamis to the prophecies of ancient oracles. So why then did he? If Herodotus’ writing somehow accurately captured the words of warning from Artemisia, did Xerxes truly believe his presence alone would carry his forces to victory? [6] The play The Persians, written by Aeschylus, has something to offer in aiding our understanding of the events that took place at Salamis (“how hateful is thy name!”). Like all primary sources, this play does provide the identification of men and women, their placement in relation to the events of the battle, and the types of weapons and the outcomes of battles.[7] But as when Polybius and Herodotus get into the minds of the enemy, with no clear idea of the sources used to do so, once should question the veracity.

The Eastern Mediterranean seemed to be uniquely shaped to encourage the development of naval warfare. The comparatively calm, land-encircled Mediterranean Sea, rich in natural harbors and clear sea lanes proved to be an ideal laboratory to develop naval warfare.[8]

Medieval Naval Power

Embarquement of King Philipp II of France for the Third Crusade (1190)
Embarquement of King Philipp II of France for the Third Crusade (1190)

Although naval capabilities, particularly in ship-design and navigation, had advanced significantly since the days of the Romans, naval warfare was still mostly littoral during this period, and usually directly associated with land warfare. Weather, that spoiler of the best laid plans of ground commanders, had an even greater impact on naval operations. The weather and tides in the Mediterranean Sea were somewhat predictable and more advantageous in some respects to European powers than to Arab and Muslim powers on the south coast.[9] Yet, with that said, weather could and did surprise medieval navies. The account King Richard’s conquest of Cyprus even begins with weather woes: “Richard’s ships had been dispersed by the uneven winds and were making for Cyprus.” As they did so, a number of ships were wrecked on the coastline because of this weather.[10]

The effects of prolonged voyages also had a negative effect on the forces being transported. One could imagine this being

Richard the Lionheart at sea
Richard the Lionheart at sea

particularly true for soldiers simply being ferried to an expected land war (as the Crusaders were) who were not experienced with sailing. When Richard landed at Cyprus, his forces were reduced because many of his troops “were exceedingly fatigued from the continual tossing of the sea.”[11] This degradation was not confined to just the soldiers, however. When Richard’s army pursed the fleeing Emperor of Cyprus, they were conscious of the fact that the horses had been “tossed about at sea for a month,” and therefore did not drive the beasts hard.[12]

In regards to actual sea combat, the accounts of medieval naval battles captured the brutality of this warfare. Writing of the Battle of Sluys in 1340, John Froissart observed “Combats at sea are more destructive and obstinate than upon land, for it is not possible to retreat or flee – every one must abide his fortune and exert his prowess and valour.”[13] And though Salimbene de Adam, in writing of the naval battle between Pison and Geona in 1147, did not make direct comparisons to land warfare, the particular manner of combat he describes makes it clear that combatants either fought or died: “[T]hey tied their ships together in the usual fashion of a naval battle. And there was such great slaughter on both sides at that place that the heavens appeared to weep in sympathy.” Even taking into account expected hyperbole, Frossart’s observation that one had nowhere to run away to during a naval battle makes the likelihood of excessive casualties, compared to land warfare, quite plausible.

[1] Herodotus, The History of Herodotus, Book 8, trans. George Rawlinson, chapter 70, http://classics.mit.edu/Herodotus/history.html

[2] Herodotus, Ibid, chapter 60.

[3] Herodotus, Ibid. 60.

[4] Herodotus, Ibid, chapter 49

[5] Polybius, The Histories, Vol 1, Trans W.R. Paton, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979)26.10-27 http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Polybius/1*.html

[6] Herodotus, Ibid. 68.1-68.3

[7] Aeschylus, The Persians, trans. Robert Potter, http://classics.mit.edu/Aeschylus/persians.html, 390-432

[8] Stephen Morillo, Jeremy Black, and Paul Lococo, War in World History Society, Technology. And War from Ancient Times to the Present, vol. 1, To 1500 (New York: McGraw Hill, 2009) 78-79.

[9] Stephen Morillo, Jeremy Black, and Paul Lococo, War in World History Society, Technology. And War from Ancient Times to the Present, vol. 1, To 1500 (New York: McGraw Hill, 2009) 279.

[10] Itinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi, ed. William Stubbs, Rolls Series, (London: Longmans, 1864) II, 9-29 (150-83), translated by James Brundage, The Crusades: A Documentary History, (Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 1962), 166-74

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] The Chronicles of Sir John Froissart, Chapter L, The naval engagement between the king of England and the French before Sluys, Ref: http://www.maisonstclaire.org/resources/chronicles/froissart/book_1/ch_026-050/fc_b1_chap050.html.

The American Soldier Experience, from World War One to Vietnam

American Soldiers
Peter S. Kindsvatter explores the experiences of American soldiers from the First World War through Vietnam.

Book Review.

In American Soldiers – Ground Combat in the World Wars, Korea, & Vietnam (University Press of Kansas, 2003), Peter S. Kindsvatter examines war diaries and memoirs to help understand the wartime experiences of U.S. soldiers over the course of half a century. Of specific interest are the individual soldiers and small unit dynamics. To further his analysis, Kindsvatter also incorporates the analyses of other social scientists and psychologists. Interestingly, he also uses literary analysis as he discusses the depiction of the soldier’s experience by wartime novelists such as Ernest Hemmingway. This mix of sources, contends Kindsvatter, allows us to search for a “collective truth.”  Although an excellent book, I found the author’s relatively seamless inclusion of fictional accounts in the midst of primary sources – as when discussing white soldier attitudes toward working with their black counterparts – somewhat distracting and unconvincing.

Kindsvatter delves into the formative collective experiences of American soldiers, such as the reasons which prompted the decision to enlist (if voluntary) or to not desert (if drafted), experiences through basic training, and ultimately through combat. The author finds that, contrary to broad-brush understandings of the motivations of soldiers during each war (e.g. soldiers enlisting in the First World War were naïve and gung-ho, the soldiers in the Second World War were more grim but determined, while those in Vietnam were largely disillusioned and unwilling), soldiers entering each conflict were driven by a mix of motives. His discussion on the “soldierization process” – the “tear down” and “build up” that transformed the civilian into a soldier, establishes how citizens from a multitude of backgrounds were brought to a common capability prior to being deployed for war. Following this the bulk of American Soldiers details the experiences of the Army and Marines as they experienced the reality of combat – from dull drudgery to “life-or-death struggle…”

A vital dynamic that gets attention throughout the book is the soldier’s identification with his unit and the Army (or Marines). Basic training laid the foundation for identification as a warrior, but one that existed as part of a larger group. This group psychology was essential to developing loyalty, and “[s]uch loyalty to the group is the essence of fighting morale.” The relationship between soldiers, both horizontally with peers and vertically with leaders and subordinates, had a significant effect on performance and morale. Nowhere was this more evident than with the experiences of black soldiers. The American military was segregated until 1949, when the U.S. Marine Corps integrated, leading the way towards eventual full integration by the end of the Korean War (Kindsvatter points out that Executive Order 9981, signed by Harry Truman in 1948 and often credited with abolishing military segregation, only directed equal treatment of soldiers). Although the experiences of blacks and other minorities are brought up throughout the monograph, an entire chapter is devoted to analyzing race relations throughout these wars.


The American War of Independence, as experienced by the British Army

Book Review

Matthew H. Spring’s With Zeal and With Bayonets Only (University of Oklahoma Press, 2008) examines the American Revolution from the perspective of the British With Zeal and Bayonets OnlyArmy. In doing so, Spring determines that the popular representations of the British forces as a monolithic, unthinking war-machine confounded at every turn by American skirmishers is unfair and untrue. The King’s armies, he concludes, “tailored their conventional tactical methods intelligently to local conditions,” which is why they proved victorious in the majority of engagements.[1]

Spring examines the British Army’s performance at both the operational and tactical levels. The American theater was an exceedingly challenging one that made it nearly impossible for the British to impose a war of general actions, where two armies could bring to bear their full strength in linear combat. Tasked to subdue a wide, wild frontier nation that did not necessarily need her urban centers to continue to fight, the British Army nevertheless was able to achieve constant success that nearly extinguished the Continental Army in the early years of the American War. By delving into such fundamental factors such as “grand tactics,” logistics (ground, riverine, and maritime), the manner of maneuver, and the type and quality of firepower, Spring portrays a disciplined military force that actively sought to adapt to the unique challenges of America.

However, With Zeal only partially proves the author’s thesis that the British Army’s success was largely due to tailored operational and tactical methods. It often seems that much of his evidence drifts in the opposite direction. For instance, the logistical shortfalls common to European armies were even more complicated by the fact the British had to rely primarily on transatlantic resupply.[2] The British Army, despite ample opportunity to adapt and plan, was largely unable to break away from the European-minded reliance on magazines and strategic food reserves. On a more tactical level, Smith does give ample attention to the “flank battalions,” comprised of light infantry that were more prepared to engage with rebel forces on their terms.[3] After a relatively unimpressive start at the beginning of the war, this light infantry became increasingly confident about besting rebels in “bushfighting.” Smith presents a number of British sources which exude satisfaction at besting the rebels in fighting “in the very style that the Americans think themselves superior…”[4] Yet these troops were apparently used effectively primarily in the northern campaigns, and this not even in the far northernmost wooded areas.[5] In the end, Spring does present a more nuanced understanding of British Army capabilities and limitations, and the book is quite valuable in this respect. However, I don’t believe that the overall image of an army primarily designed to fight a European Continental-style war is completely rehabilitated.

[1] Matthew H. Spring, With Zeal and Bayonets Only: The British Army on Campaign in North America, 1775 – 1783 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008), xii.

[2] Ibid, 33-34.

[3] Ibid, 57-62.

[4] Ibid, 253.

[5] Ibid, 62-63, 255.

Clausewitz, Jomini, and the Birth of Modern Strategy

Carl von Clausewitz
Carl von Clausewitz
Antoine Jomini
Antoine Jomini

Of the military and political theorists who emerged from the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars and the Enlightenment, Carl von Clausewitz and Antoine-Henri Jomini both produced writings which captured enduring lessons and insights into the nature and conduct of war. The works of Clausewitz (On War) and Jomini (The Art of War) can both rightly claim a lasting legacy, but can it be said that one of these men was more responsible for guiding modern strategy? While not disputing that Jomini left a significant mark on modern thinking on warfare, I tend to side with the Clausewitz camp. If there was such a title as “Father of Modern Strategy,” I think it belongs with Carl (although the title of this blog may also have been a spoiler).

Jomini’s purpose, as he sought to explain Napoleon’s breathtaking military successes across the continent in the early 19th century, was to boil warfare down to a scientific basis for strategy.[1] His primary interest was in how to conduct war[2]. Early in Jomini’s most famous work, he identifies six distinct parts to “the art of war” (although he primarily concerns himself with the first four of these parts): statesmanship (diplomacy), strategy, grand tactics logistics, engineering (the attack and defense of fortifications), and minor tactics.[3] It is this focus on the conduct of strategy that helps to separate The Art of War from Clausewitz’s work, and ultimately makes Jomini’s ideas less relevant in the long run (as we shall see). To Jomini, victory could be achieved by adhering to a fundamental principle of war: the application of mass against an enemy at a decisive point at the proper time.[4] It was the intention of Jomini to demonstrate that the chaos and complexity of war could be reduced to such a simple principle that it, when mastered by an exceptional military commander, would lead to victory.

Battle of Fère-Champenoise in 1814. Much of Jomini's writings were intended to explain Napoleon's battlefield successes.
Battle of Fère-Champenoise in 1814. Much of Jomini’s writings were intended to explain Napoleon’s battlefield successes.

There is much of Jomini’s theory that resonated with soldiers since the Swiss-born military man first found an audience in the early 19th century. His ambition lay in simplifying the complexities of war, and after doing so prescribing methods to achieve victory on the battlefield.[5] This may have helped shape, and in turn was itself shaped by, the establshed military thinking over the many years Jomini developed his theories. There was a certain simplicity to be found in his works, something that may have appealed to soldiers in general over subsequent decades.[6]

Clausewitz, on the other hand, purposefully set out first to define not necessarily how to fight a war, but to identify the essential nature of it. In On War, he endeavored to explain what was possible and what was impossible to achieve in regards to understanding war with theory. Very much at odds with Jomini, Clausewitz warns against the notion of reducing military action to simple formulae. “In short, absolute, so-called mathematical, factors never find a firm basis in military calculations.”[7] War is complex, and any theory which sought to exclude variables introduced by such “friction” as human genius, courage, incompetence, and other unpredictable events is useless.[8] Like Jomini, Clausewitz pulls from his experience during the Napoleonic Wars. But rather than seeking to demonstrate war as being obedient to certain simple fundamental principles, Clausewitz sought to understand the phenomenon of war, suspended as it was between the “remarkable trinity” of violence, chance, and politics.[9] Paret states it well when he said that in On War, Clausewitz was primarily concerned with “political and strategic planning, and the conduct of hostilities.”[10]

Clausewitz more fully develops the centrality of policy and politics to war.
Clausewitz more fully develops the centrality of policy and politics to war.

The enduring relevancy, then, is that when Clausewitz does venture into the battle (as he does in his discussions on the virtues of defensive war, offensive war, and limited war) it is that the discussions can almost always be traced back to his original thesis, that war is an extension of politics that employs the use of violence. Book Eight, Chapter Six of On War, for example, continues to remind the reader that the political aim affects military objectives. In speaking of the motivations of allied states (in the midst of his chapters on limited war), Clausewitz states that “even when both [allies] share a major interest, action is clogged with diplomatic reservations, and as a rule the negotiators only pledge a small and limited contingent, so that the rest can be kept in hand for any special ends the shifts in policy require.”[11] This reoccurring point about the centrality of policy and politics to war is not to be interpreted as something that should impede the commanding general. Rather, for Clausewitz, war and politics – and therefore strategy – were that inseparable. “It follows that the transformation of the art of war resulted from the transformation of politics [here meaning changes wrought by the French Revolution]. So far from suggesting that the two could be disassociated from each other, these changes are a strong proof of their indispensable connection.”[12]

There are areas of apparent overlap between Clausewitz and Jomini, although this overlap frays somewhat if it is examined closely. For example, both acknowledge the fundamental relationship between the execution of war and politics. Jomini states that the first order of business for a commanding general is “to agree with the head of state upon the character of the war…”[13] However, the treatment that The Art of War gives to political leadership is not developed much beyond this. Additional attention is given in regards to the government’s obligation to maintain a credible military in times of peace (which does, in fact, often sound familiar to debates waged today over military spending). There is also a discussion on the proper manner in which a prince should take direct command of fielded forces.[14] However, little attention is given over how the government provides definition of the objectives the prince has determined. This is more than quibbling over whether Jomini (or Clausewitz for that matter) had the foresight to look beyond the efficiency of monarchical government. Jomini’s stated purpose was to separate war from the specific events of his era, and to present scientific truths about strategy. But by tying his theories to the notion that politics and war were separate and distinct, he essentially limited the applicability of his lessons to future conflict. For Jomini, the central player and most often target audience is the commanding general. For Clausewitz, the central player may also be said to be the commanding general, but the target audience is arguably the political leadership as well. This distinction alone makes Clausewitz’s work more enduring, and therefore more relevant, than Jomini’s.

To be sure, Clausewitz’s work is not without its own imperfections and criticisms. For example, On War almost completely ignores naval operations, likely the result of Clausewitz’s own lack of experience in that area. More significantly, considering the fundamental relationship between politics and war, he never addresses the relevance of national economics. [15] However, Clausewitz’s theory of the nature of war, both theoretical and real, is arguably more resilient that Jomini’s fundamental principle of the art of war. The weaknesses in Jominian theory when applied to unsymmetrical warfare has already been referenced. But Clausewitz’s theory, with allows for (and even assumes) the unexpected, retains a flexibility that has proven it to be a far more valuable theoretical construction.

The author of On War’s impact on modern strategy is arguably greater in that his writing has retained more overall relevancy throughout its existence. This is in part because it remains valuable to more than military commanders. While again acknowledging that Jomini does address the role of the head of state in war, this is mostly in the narrow context of leading the actual campaign. But by framing war as “an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will,” Clausewitz’s writings beckon the attention of political as well as military leaders. His discussions on mobilizing resources for war and the identification of centers of gravity – which do not necessarily have to be an army – are just as insightful as the defining of objectives outside of the narrow paradigm of occupation of territory. Peter Paret insightfully notes that the amount of influence that Clausewitz’s ideas have wielded over time is hard to gauge.[16] In fact, he finds that since the late 19th century, there is little evidence that governments or military leaders have actually put into practice much of Clausewitz’s theories. While I disagree with this somewhat (we have seen keen interest since World War II on centers of gravity, an idea that has been nurtured and evolved to this day), Paret’s larger point serves to prove Clausewitz’s truth about the complexity of war. Regardless of the acceptance of any theory, the frictions brought to bear on the execution of war in the real world will almost certainly result in something that looks very different from that theory. Yet the framework proposed by Clausewitz of the fundamental nature of war and the friction that inevitably makes conflict so difficult to predict and control continues to offer insight to students of strategy even today. This is the reason why more non-military historians recognize Clausewitz, and why he should be considered the Father of Modern Strategy.

[1] John Shy, “Jomini,” in Makers of Modern Strategy from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age, ed. Peter Paret (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), 144.

[2] Antulio J. Echevarria II., “Jomini and The Art of War.,” Seminar III. Lecture 1.2, 2.

[3] Baron de Jomini, The Art of War, trans. H. Mendell and W. P. Craighill (Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott: 1879), 15.

[4] Ibid, 48-49.

[5] [5] John Shy, ibid, 179.

[6] Antulio J. Echevarria II., ibid.

[7] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, edited by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984), 86.

[8] Ibid, 89.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Peter Paret, in Makers of Modern Strategy from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age, ed. Peter Paret (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), 208.

[11] Carl von Clausewitz, ibid, 603.

[12] Ibid, 610.

[13] Ibid, 45.

[14] Baron de Jomini, ibid, 29-31, 35-37.

[15] Peter Paret, ibid, 208.

[16] Ibid, 213.

For Want of Horses and Ships: Social and Economic Constraints of Christian and Muslim Forces During the Third Crusade


 Acre Given to Phillip Augustus 1191

In Warriors of God (Doubleday, 2001), James Reston Jr. describes an event that took place outside of Nazareth, in the Holy Land, only two months before the devastating route of Christian forces at Hattin in 1187. 130 mounted Templars, Hospitalers, and other knights intercepted7,000 Muslim soldiers under the command of Saladin. Sure that victory would be supplied by God, the knights charged into the vastly superior army. God did not provide victory, however, and only a handful escaped with their lives. The cost of the ill-considered attack in trained knights, responsible for defending the Christian kingdom against an increasingly powerful and numerous enemy, was of course significant. But there were other casualties that were felt nearly as keenly: that of the horses. The loss of over 100 mounts was considered so serious that the need for replacements was specifically called out to Pope Urban III. In a plea for resources to replace the combat losses, the Master of the Temple (Gerard de Ridgefort, who actually led the ill-fated attack, and who somehow survived) emphasized the “serious losses of horses and arms, quite apart from the loss of men…”[1]

This brief comment highlights a specific problem for the Christian kingdom in particular, and suggests a broader question that can be applied to any of the Crusades, but will be considered here for the battles that were to occur following Hattin: how did economic constraints and resource limitations help to shape the events of the Third Crusade? Both King Richard of England and Saladin, the Sultan who ruled Palestine, Egypt, and Syria, were burdened with very different limitations on their resources and logistics. It is interesting that these limitations were proportionately crippling to the military might of each side which, in the end, resulted in a stalemate that shaped the landscape of the Holy Land for a century after the conflict.

Following the victory by Saladin over the Christians in 1187, the cities of the Crusader States fell rapidly. It was in response to this defeat of most of the Christian Kingdom in Palestine that King Richard, German Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, and Philip Augustus, King of France answered the call to crusade by Pope Gregory VIII, who replaced Urban III after his death toward the close of 1187.[2] The logistical and resource obstacles could scarcely have been more challenging. Of all that once comprised the Outremer, only Tyre remained. It was decided that Emperor Barbarossa would move his massive army overland and enter Palestine through Byzantium in the North, while Richard and Phillip Augustus would sail with their armies to Tyre.[3]


Richard the Lionheart

As King Richard marshaled his forces, he faced the same daunting challenges as his predecessors in waging war in Palestine. The expedition had to be funded, forces raised, and then transported from Europe to the Levant. Neither in regards to manpower nor in equipment could the Outremer supply itself. The Christian kingdom had ruled over a primarily Muslim population who (except for local bands of mercenaries called the turcopoles) were not likely to rise up in her defense.[4]

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