a revolution in the art of war -- 10/27/20

Today's selection -- from Emperor: A New Life of Charles V by Geoffrey Parker. In the early 1500s, fortresses were redesigned in such a way as to greatly reduce the effectiveness of siege warfare and thus double or triple the cost of European wars. It was a revolution in the art of warfare. This meant that even the treasures of the Aztecs and Incas were not enough to cover the costs of the wars of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, whose dominions included the Americas. He left so much debt that it forced his son, Philip II, King of Spain, into the first financial default in Spanish history:

"The development of the artillery fortress, an interlocking system of star shaped bastions and outposts beyond reinforced walls, known as alla moderna and à la manière moderne, revolutionized the art of land warfare in Europe because they normally only surrendered after a complete blockade by armies of unprecedented size. Steven Gunn has estimated that in the 1550s 'forces of 40,000 or more operated in a region which had in the 1520s supported armies only a quarter of the size'. Securing the surrender of an artillery fortress by blockade normally took weeks if not months, and sieges became the hinge on which campaigns turned.

"The Siege of Florence" by Giorgio Vasari

"Charles first encountered this truth in 1529. A few years before, anticipating a siege, the republic of Florence had reconfigured existing towers and gateways into angular bastions, adding thick revetments of earth to reinforce the medieval walls, and creating forts beyond the walls to cover weak points. The military stalemate created by these initiatives infuriated Charles's commander at the siege of Florence, Prince Philibert of Orange, whose holograph letters complained repeatedly that the lack of artillery, men and money jeopardized the outcome of the siege. In October 1529, describing himself as 'the most desperate man in the world,' the prince warned Charles that 'if you really want the town you can have it, but not with the few troops I have here because -- please believe me -- it would take me years to conclude the matter. If you want victory now, you must send immediately 10,000 or 12,000 men to complete the siege-works on the other side of the river, together with a good artillery crew.' He did not exaggerate: Florence held out for eleven months. Artillery fortresses would again derail Charles's campaign in 1544 (St Dizier halted his invasion of France for over a month) and sabotage his strategy in 1551, with the unsuccessful siege of Parma, and in 1552, with the unsuccessful siege of Metz.

"Supporting the large armies required to subdue an artillery fortress created another problem: organized indiscipline. As the prince of Orange complained during the siege of Florence: 'Your whole army is ready to mutiny through lack of money ... If God does not work a miracle, as He usually does, and you do not provide a remedy, I hold a general mutiny to be certain.' Others shared the prince's concerns. The insubordinate behaviour by the imperial troops in Italy led the duke of Ferrara to inform the emperor that 'we do not dare to accept just now the command of such a disobedient and unbridled [exfrenato] army'. Ferrara was wise: the Spanish troops in Lombardy had mutinied briefly before their victory at Pavia, and thousands of their successors would mutiny again in Italy in 1537-8 (after the failed Provence campaign), in Germany in 1547 (after defeating the Schmalkaldic League) and in the Netherlands in 1553 (after the siege of Metz).

"Artillery also transformed naval warfare during Charles's reign. In the Mediterranean, oared galleys now deployed huge centreline guns either against targets ashore (as at La Goletta in 1535) or against each other (as at Preveza in 1538). At the same time, the operational range of galley fleets increased dramatically. The viceroy of Sicily observed wistfully in 1557 that:

Things are different today from what they were thirty or forty years ago. Back then we talked about the Turks as if were talking about the Antipodes, but now they come so close and they are so familiar with the affairs of Christendom that what happens in Sicily is known as quickly in Constantinople as in Spain; and it is normal for their fleet to sail by this island every year.

"In the Atlantic, too, naval warfare became more complex as sailing warships began to deploy heavy artillery on their lower decks (thanks to the invention of the gun port). In 1545 the galleons of Francis and Henry VIII engaged in an artillery duel when a French expeditionary force attempted to land on the Isle of Wight; and in 1558 bombardment from Spanish galleons offshore helped to defeat the French troops trapped on the sands near Gravelines.

"These developments greatly increased the cost of naval operations. Unlike infantry or cavalry regiments, warships -- whether galleons or galleys -- could not be mobilized at the beginning of a campaign and demobilized at its end. Rulers needed either to maintain a standing navy or else find and fund someone else to do so. In 1522 the emperor managed to sail through the Atlantic to Spain only because Henry VIII loaned him ships from the Royal Navy; and in 1529, 1535, 1541 and 1543 he managed to cross the Mediterranean only because the galley fleet maintained by Andrea Doria escorted him.

"James Tracy has calculated that these innovations in land and sea warfare increased the cost of Charles's campaigns from an annual average of 430,000 ducats in the 1530s to 900,000 ducats in the 1540s -- more than double -- with further increases in the 1550s. Moreover, whereas windfalls (above all the French ransom and the spoils of the Aztec and Inca empires) covered almost half the emperor's military expenditure in the 1530s, they produced less than one-fifth in the 1540s and even less in the 1550s, leading him to secure loans from bankers and to sequester his subjects' private property, creating a sovereign debt that could not be repaid. A few months after his accession, Philip II's financial advisers calculated that he owed over ten million ducats in his various dominions, and that he had committed all his revenues for the next four years to their repayment; shortly afterwards, for the first time in Spanish history, the treasury defaulted on its obligations and forcibly converted outstanding high-interest loans into low-interest bonds. Charles's wars also involved an important opportunity cost: when the emperor campaigned in person, as he did for at least 600 days between 1532 and 1554, he found time for little else. According to a disgruntled diplomat travelling with Charles during his last campaign, 'In wartime His Majesty does not attend to other business.'"

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Geoffrey Parker


Emperor: A New Life of Charles V


Yale University Press


Copyright 2019, Geoffrey Parker


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