There are times when we believe that that History is nothing but series of forgettable dates, the names of Kings or Presidents or Prime Ministers, and the Battle of This or the Battle of the Other. We may be right, but History is also the events of yesterday, that we may try to compare with the events of BC. It is also the history of armies.
An army is an organized force of armed men trained for fighting on land, though occasionally armies are transported by sea (The Grand Armada 1588 q.v.) or air (Afghanistan). Armies have been with us since the first time Man wished to underpin the territory he had inherited, or gained by subterfuge. Egypt, Babylon, Carthage, Persia, Assyria and Greece formed armies. They were composed of marching fighting men called infantry, mounted fighting men called cavalry, and a mixture of the two – fighting men (and sometimes women) in chariots drawn by horses. Animals have always been involved in the composition of armies, with normally tragic results; horses, mules, donkeys, elephants and dogs have fought with armies, and the carnage among these brave animals has been horrific.
In ancient Greece the concept of a professional army reached its climax with King Philip of Macedon and then, even more notably, his son Alexander. There was resistance of course, and thus the siege came into being, a science in itself. The development of techniques designed to break a siege became an important part of military practice.
It was Hannibal of Carthage who probably first thought of hiring mercenaries to strengthen the native force. But it was Rome which was first evolved the idea of maintaining fully professional standing forces, dotted around the two empires. Military discipline, which enables commanders to order manoeuvres leading to victory, started with a system of officers leading numbered groups. The centurion for example commanded one hundred men.
Rome dominated what was known of Europe from the second century BC to the fifth century AD: seven centuries of army discipline. Much less disciplined forces, moving swiftly in great numbers came to the fore during what we call The Dark Ages (roughly the sixth to the ninth centuries AD). The leaders had names like Attila the Hun (roughly speaking German) to the Mongolian Ghengis and Kubla Khan. In the Middle Ages, less ‘dark’ because monks were busy in their monasteries (q.v.) writing down history, the limitations placed upon heavily armoured, mounted knights were shown up as less viable by Swiss mercenaries armed with halberds and pikes (the horses were struck first), and then by the English archer in France (q.v.), the first true leveler of classes. Again in the Middle Ages, the employment of mercenaries was commonplace.
The fifteenth century saw the development of cannon, musket and gunpowder, using leaden bullets. This changed the face of warfare. Organization, discipline and a system of officials, or officers commanding, led to the successes of Frederick the Great of Prussia. The first conscripted armies were ‘recruited’ in France to fight wars for Napoleon, who could be said to have had ideas above his station. Nevertheless his constant series of victories must be attributed to his confidence in the marshals (Soult, Ney, Bernadotte etc.) who in their turn were equally confident in their men.
During the nineteenth century almost all European states adopted the contentious system of conscription of young men to train, serve and often die alongside professionals in the armies. In Britain forced conscription was employed between 1916–18. Hundreds of thousands of young British and Commonwealth men were slaughtered in the first two years of the First War, so many that conscription was deemed necessary. This horrible law was enforced again between 1939 and 1959/60.
European armies played a crucial part in nineteen and twentieth imperialistic wars. It was their tremendously superior firepower that established dominance in Africa and parts of Asia. The American Civil War (1861 – 65 q.v.) engaged large armies of the North (The Union) against the South (The Confederacy). The battles were often needlessly bloody; railways were discovered to be necessary for the fast movement of troops. New weapons, such as the breech-loading rifle, then the repeater carbine (Winchester) and the first automatic pistol with a capacity for nine bullets in a magazine were introduced. The first slow-firing but deadly machine guns, called Gatling, also appeared. These weapons were designed for one purpose only – to kill as many of the enemy as possibly within the shortest time.
The Franco-Prussian War saw heavy artillery developed, capable of flattening whole villages in one barrage. Infantry and cavalry tactics however were unchanged until World War 1, which killed more than a million horses. Then the British introduced the tank, which changed the face of war yet again. The tank was medium-range heavy artillery mounted on wheels inside tracks, a vehicle capable of motoring almost anywhere, with hugely destructive fire-power.
The infantry keep on plodding (frequently behind the tanks), armed with rifle, bayonet, grenade and guts. It was pitched against the new machine guns. Commonwealth and British troops fought against the Central Powers in and out of trenches, and the slaughter can only have satisfied the generals and politicians back home.
By World War II armies were totally motorized and tanks played a major part in the North African Campaign and at the Eastern Front. The basic soldier’s rifle was gradually being replaced by the light machine gun and the much shorter, quicker-firing sub-machine gun, which was fully automatic and carried more than 28 rounds in curved magazines.
Mobility required enormous back-up, maintenance and canteen services. In the Cold War (roughly from 1946 to 1989), a balance of power and threat, huge armies from NATO and the Warsaw Pact countries faced each other in Europe. They were armed with conventional weapons that became more and more sophisticated as war technology improved. Tanks were used to stunning effect in Bush Senior’s First Gulf War, while the Second (under another Bush) was won easily by airborne fire-power.
Armies have been successfully bogged down by lightly-armed natives in Afghanistan since Alexander the Great, who pronounced the country impossible to occupy. No changes have been observed.