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Parker, The Military Revolution: Military Innovation and the Rise of the West, 1500-1800

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Geoffrey Parker, The Military Revolution: Military Innovation and the Rise of the West, 1500-1800, Second Edition (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1996).


Central Proposition/Thesis:

[4] " is the argument of this book that the key to the Westerners' success in creating the first truly global empires between 1500 and 1750 depended upon precisely those improvements in the ability to wage war which have been termed 'the military revolution'."

[5] Daniel R. Headrick explained in The Tools of Empire: Technology and European Imperialism in the Nineteenth Century "how the Western states increased their global empires from about 35 percent of the world's land surface in 1800 to 84 percent in 1914. ... My objective, therefore, is rather different: I seek to illuminate the principal means by which the West acquired that first 35 percent between 1500 and 1800."



Three key innovations in Europe during the sixteenth century set the stage for a military revolution in Europe and eventually led to European dominance of the world: gunpowder weapons, the "artillery fortress", and the capital ship.



Parker traces developments in European military history from 1500-1800. He specifically considers the implications on both armies and societies of what he considers the three most important innovations of the sixteenth century: gunpowder weapons, "artillery fortresses", and the capital ship. These three innovations, together, constitute a "military revolution" that forever changed Europe and the world.


The Military Revolution: [1] According to Michael Roberts, four changes in the art of war occurred between 1560 and 1660. Together, these four elements constitute a "military revolution" and provide a framework that Parker considers throughout his book.

1. Revolution in Tactics. [1] "First came a 'revolution in tactics': the replacement of the lance and pike by the arrow and muskey, as the feudal knights fell before the firepower of massed archers or gunners."

2. Growth in Army Size. [1] "Associated with this development were a marked growth in army size right across Europe (with armed forces of several states increasing tenfold between 1500 and 1700)...."

3. Adoption of More Complex Strategies. [1] "...and the adoption of more ambitious and complex strategies designed to bring these larger armies into action."

4. Dramatic Societal Impact of War. [2] "Fourth, and finally, Roberts's military revolution dramatically accentuated the impact of war on society: the greater costs incurred, the greater damage inflicted, and the greater administrative challenges posed by the augmented armies made waging war far more of a burden and far more of a problem than ever previously, both for the civilian population and for their rulers."

Chapter One: The Military Revolution Revisited. [4] "My story begins with a survey of the various ways in which the Europeans fought their wars in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as the rapid spread of firearms transformed the conduct of both offensive and defensive operations, with due regard for those areas that seemed largely unaffected by the military revolution as well as for those that lay at its heart (Chapter 1)."

[7] The armies of the Middle Ages were subject to just the same tension between offensive and defensive techniques from which strategy, and military innovation, spring."

[7] By the twelfth century, vertical fortifications favored the defense.

[7] In the fifteenth century, the advent of powerful siege guns capable of destroying the walls of medieval cities tipped the balance to the offense. [8] "It seemed as if the age of 'vertical defence' was now over."

[10-12] By the sixteenth century the trace italienne--fortifications with short, thick, earthen walls that could withstand cannon-fire; gun-towers with inter-locking fields of fire; wide, deep exterior ditches that mitigated sapping--shifted the balance back toward the defense.

[12] "The cost [of building trace italienne], however, was stunning." Therefore, trace italienne spread slowly through Europe.

[12] In 1553, the Republic of Sienna, which faced threats of attack, embarked on a program of refortification that bankrupted it and led to its annexation by neighboring Florence. Thus, in this case, a single-minded pursuit of security led to extinction.

[16] Heavily defended fortresses or towns could not be circumvented and ignored because their resident forces threatened the supply lines of invading armies. Sieges remained necessary, and required an increasing number of men to isolate the besieged and fend off relief forces. Consequently, the size of armies grew.

[16] Additionally, the rise of firepower (arrows, then muskets) increased the relative lethality (thus utility) of infantry over cavalry. Since infantry cost less than cavalry, this development also encouraged a growth in the size of armies.

[43] "And so to conclude: warfare in early modern Europe was certainly transformed by three important, related developments -- a new use of firepower, a new type of fortifications, and an increase in army size. But the timing of the transformation was far slower, and the impact less total, than was once thought. Most of the wars fought in Europe before the French Revolution were not brought to an end by a strategy of extermination, but ... through a strategy of attrition, via the patient accumulation of minor victoriesand the slow erosion of the enemy's economic base. There were, to be sure, a few exceptions.... [Nevertheless, the] classic conflicts of the age of military revolution were all 'long wars' made up of numerous separate campaigns and 'actions'...."

[43-44] Increases in the size and cost of armies explains partly the longevity of war. [44] "[S]trategic thinking had become crushed between the sustained growth in army size and the relative scarcity of money, equipment and food. In the age of the military revolution, the skill of individual governments and generals in supplyinig war often became the pivot about which the outcome of armed conflict turned."

Chapter Two: Supplying War. [4] "Chapter 2, by contrast, does focus on these more 'advanced' areas, most of them in the west of Europe, in order to examine the logistical problems which better fortifications and bigger armies created, and how they were overcome."

Strategies of attrition that employ large armies require a substantial amount of resources. [59] Ancient incentives of plunder gradually became insufficient for large, professional armies. [61] Paying large armies over the course of long wars also became problematic. [62-63] Sovereigns were forced to finance military operations through loans. [64] Private contractors and entrepreneurs began supplying fielded armies. [76] Campaigns often remained nearby the sea or along navigable rivers on which supplies could be transported at less cost.

[80] "Even with increased manpower, the political objectives of governments at war were still unattainable with the limited military strategies available. As before, most decisive wars were not big and most big wars were not decisive. The states of early modern Europe had discovered how to supply large armies but not how to lead them to victory."

[80] "The more land warfare became a stalemate, the more the leading states sought a decision through naval power."

Chapter Three: Victory at Sea. [4] "However, the arms-race between the various Western powers took place by sea as well as by land; and the 'military revolution' here offered the European states an opportunity to extend their conflicts far beyond their own shores. At first this escalation remained confined to encounters at sea, with attacks by one European flotilla upon another in the North Atlantic, the Mediterranean, the Carribean and, eventually, the Indian Ocean (Chapter 3)."

The introduction of the capital ship -- swift vessels with cannons -- permitted European powers to contest access to the seas and control strategically important waters. While fleets were no guarantor of strategic victory, they extended the reach of European powers who could afford them.

Chapter Four: The 'Military Revolution' Abroad. [4] But, before long, the Europeans abroad searched for native allies, and thereby spread their enmities to the other continents. With them they took their new military methods and, as these steadily improved, they gradually gained superiority over all their opponents: over the Americans in the sixteenth century, over most Indonesians in the seventeenth, and over many Indians and Africans in the eighteenth. In the end, only Korea, China and Japan held out against the West until the Industrial Revolution in Europe and America forged some new tools of empire -- such as the armoured steam-ship and the rapid-fire gun -- to which even East Asia at first possessed no effective reply (Chapter 4)"

Chapter Five: Beyond the Revolution. [5] "This volume concludes with a brief examination of the process by which the armies and navies of the early modern states metamorphosed into those of the industrial age, capable of imposing -- and, for nearly a century, of maintaining -- Western influence and Western ways on almost the entire world."

[146-147] "...the various changes in the scale and nature of war described in the preceding chapters were accompanied by changes in the structure and nature of the states which fought them. This should not surprise us for, as noted in chapter 2 above, the growth of an effective bureaucracy was an essential prerequisite for the creation, control and supply of larger and better-equipped armies. Thus the great leap in army size in the 1530s and 40s was accompanied by a major reorganization of government in most Western states in which the inherited administrative system (based on the household) gave way to a more complex bureaucratic edifice; while the further period of rapid increase in manpower between 1672 and 1710 was associated with the rise of absolutism -- especially in the states that had been prominent in the Thirty Years War and had experienced a collapse in the pyramid of command during it (France, Sweden, Austria and Prussia)."

[148] In the eighteenth century, "tactics of rapid fire at close range, with the consequent heavy losses of men, called for a far better supply of war materials than previous armies had enjoyed." ... "But the cost of all this was crippling. In human terms, the wars consumed too many men. ... In financial terms, too, the cost was unacceptably high...."

[151] By the end of the eighteenth century, the military system in Europe was again changing. "These three transformations -- the use of light troops and skirmishers; the introduction of divisions and a more mobile strategy; and the creation of a swift and powerful field artillery -- were associated after 1793 with a further revolution in military manpower. ... The [French] royal army in 1788-9, on the eve of the Revolution, stood at some 150,000 men. By August 1793 its paper strength had reached 645,000 and the celebrated levee en masse probably doubled this figure. By September 1794, the army of the Republic numbered, at least in theory, 1,169,000 men."

[153] Enormous mobile armies capable of devastating firepower became an "almost irresistible concentration of force." While bastioned fortifications could still withstand sieges, such large armies could afford to encircle them and proceed on to other objectives.

[153] "The evolution of naval warfare was roughly similar. The near-equilibrium of the three navies of north-west Europe in the later seventeenth century ... was shattered in the later eighteenth century because Britain forged ahead while others did not. In 1789, there were perhaps 440 ships-of-the-line in Europe's navies, of which almost one-third (153) were British, all of them equipped with standard, mass-produced steel cannon. But, by 1810, after almost twenty years of continuous war at sea, the Royal Navy comprised over 1,000 purpose-built warships (243 of them ships-of-the-line) with a total displacement of 861,000 tons and a complement of 142,000 men. These, too, represented an almost irresistible concentration of force which could be applied anywhere in the world. It was from this position of overwhleming strength that Britannia could, and did, rule the waves."

[154] The concentration of such large armies and fleets strained to the limit the expanded economic, political and technological resources which had permitted their creation." Not until technology caught up -- with telegraphs, railways, and breech-loading rifles -- could extremely large armies be employed and sustained effectively. These means, along with the advent of the iron-clad steamship, gave Europeans the forceful power needed to subjugate those remaining uncolonized peoples of the world.

[154] "The West had now indeed risen. In a way that few could have foreseen, the sustained preoccupation of the European states with fighting each other by land and sea had at length paid handsome dividends. Thanks above all to their military superiority, founded upon the military revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Western nations had managed to create the first global hegemony in History."

Afterword: In Defence of The Military Revolution. Parker's The Military Revolution was originally published in 1988. The Afterword chapter is a defense of his original work that applauds several subsequent works and addresses a few critiques put forward between 1988 and the release of the book's second edition in 1996.

[176] Parker concludes with the following reaffirmation of his original work: "Only military resilience and technological innovation -- especially the capital ship, infantry firepower and the artillery fortress: the three vital components of the military revolution in the sixteenth century -- allowed the West to make the most of its smaller resources in order to resist and, eventually, to expand to global dominance."

[158] Among the works referenced in the Afterword is Clifford Rogers's The Military Revolution Debate in which the "punctuated equilibrium" model is heralded. The model is an alternative to the notion of military revolutions and was first presented in 1972 by Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge. According to Rogers, Gould and Eldredge argued "that evolution proceeded by short bursts of rapid change interspersed with long periods of stasis rather than constant, slow alteration." However, the model's initial version effectively dismissed incremental change. The revised model of "punctuated equilibrium" that is presented in Rogers's book combines incremental change with spurts of rapid advancement. Said differently, military revolutions don't happen; rather, military innovation is a long and lurching process.

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