The Father of Modern Warfare & The Military Revolution

“The Father of Modern Warfare and the Military Revolution”

History has played host to many great military commanders and generals; brilliant men who have steered the course of history through a combination of brilliant tactics, innovations, and sheer boldness. In his memoirs that he wrote during his exile on St. Helena Napoleon Bonaparte is alleged to have written that “seven great captains have come before me”.[1] These ‘great captains’ he wrote of, in chronological order, were Alexander the Great, Hannibal Barca, Julius Caesar, Gustavus Adolphus, Viscount Turenne, Prince Eugene, and Frederick the Great.[2] However, notice that in this list Gustavus Adolphus is the first great captain of what historians would recognise as being ‘the modern era’ and that the sixteen centuries separating Julius Caesar and Gustavus Adolphus are barren of notable talent. In the eyes of some historians this is why the centuries of slow ‘evolutionary’ change have been forgotten and is why Gustavus Adolphus is debated to have caused a ‘military revolution’. This article shall therefore set out to address these two points and either prove or disprove them. Was Gustavus Adolphus II of Sweden truly the ‘Father of Modern Warfare’, as he is affectionately known, and did he really usher in the ‘Military Revolution’?

Gustavus In order to go about answering these two questions one needs to firstly establish the identity of the titular figure himself and by an extension establish the context of this debate. Gustav II Adolf, better known by his Latinized name Gustavus Adolphus, ruled as the King of Sweden between 1611 and 1632. He is accredited with elevating Sweden to a position of immense political, military, and religious stature through his involvement in the Thirty Years War. Gustavus is the only Swedish monarch to have been granted the title of ‘Magnus’, meaning ‘Great’, posthumously making his full title Gustavus Adolphus Magnus. The granting of this prestigious title is not without merit as Gustavus was famous for not only being a masterful military leader but also for being a champion of his people in Sweden and of the relatively fledgling Protestant church. He was very popular among both his nobility and his troops as he was known to cross worlds and envelop himself in all rings of his society while never losing sight of what his status as a monarch meant.[3] Gustavus and Sweden joined the Thirty Years War through a sequence of events, better explained by more capable historians, but suffice to say that Gustavus sought to expand the influence of Sweden through warfare and sought to protect Protestantism in Europe by preventing any potential Catholic aggression against his homeland.

The majority of battles in the Middle Ages had been won almost exclusively by whomever could field the larger army and whoever could muster the greater number of cavalry. Indeed this was the model that many of the belligerents of the Thirty Years War continued to use until Gustavus arrived in the Holy Roman Empire via the Duchy of Pomerania in 1630. This was not Gustavus’s first foray into warfare however, for he had fought against Poland between 1626 and 1629; a campaign during which he developed and refined ‘innovations’ he brought to bear on the armies of the Hapsburgs.[4]

The Swedish army stood apart from its’ contemporaries through five characteristics. Its’ soldiers wore uniform and had a nucleus of native Swedes, raised from a surprisingly diplomatic system of conscription, at its’ core.[5] The Swedish regiments were small in comparison to their opponents and were lightly equipped for speed. Each regiment had its’ own light and mobile field artillery guns called ‘leathern guns’ that were easy to handle and could be easily manoeuvred to meet sudden changes on the battlefield. The muskets carried by these soldiers were of a type superior to that in general use and allowed for much faster rates of fire.[6] Swedish cavalry, instead of galloping up to the enemy, discharging their pistols and then turning around and galloping back to reload, ruthlessly charged with close quarter weapons once their initial shot had been expended. By analysing this paradigm it becomes apparent that the army under Gustavus emphasized speed and manoeuvrability above all – this greatly set him apart from his opponents.[7]

firstmusterThese ‘innovations’ are perhaps best demonstrated by the manner in which Gustavus constructed his forces on the battlefield. Swedish regiments resembled the typical Spanish ‘tercio’ formations used by the majority of the Catholic armies, albeit with slight modifications. The regiments consisted of a central pike block flanked by musketeers, but what set them apart from their contemporaries is that the formations were shallower than, to use another contemporary example, the Dutch system, with ranks six men deep rather than ten. This formation, called ‘swinesfeather’, presented a broader but thinner front which brought more firepower to bear on enemy formations.[8] Swedish musketeers were drilled to maintain continuous fire by use of the ‘counter-march’ in which shot-starved musketeers would retreat behind musketeers ready to fire as to not interrupt the barrage of fire and to not present a sitting target to the enemy.

Swedish Cavalry Charge

Swedish Cavalry Charge

Gustavus also added the tactic of ‘doubling the files’ when the enemy drew near, in which the rearmost ranks of musketeers moved up to fill the gaps between the frontline ranks, thereby transforming a six-rank formation into three ranks and doubling the spread of fire, greatly increasing the amount of firepower in a pinch. During this manoeuvre the front rank would kneel, the second rank would crouch and the third rank would stand. When commanded, all three ranks would fire simultaneously to deliver an utterly devastating salvo. If the enemy somehow withstood this hail of lead, the Swedish musketeers would reload behind the protection of the pikemen before they could fire again. If their enemies faltered in the face of such overwhelming firepower the Swedish soldiers and cavalry would draw close quarter weapons and charge the shattered enemy line, all the while supported by their regimental artillery that could be moved forward with ease to support the advancing Swedes.[9]

The Battle of Breitenfeld (1631)

The Battle of Breitenfeld (1631)

The Battle of Breitenfield in 1631 was the first time that the reformed Swedish army and these innovative tactics were employed to devastating effect. Despite their Saxon allies being routed by the Hapsburg cavalry the Battle of Breitenfield was a massive victory for the Swedish. The Battle of Breitenfeld must take its place in the simplified tradition which is customarily called history, not because of what it achieved but because of what contemporary men thought it had achieved. It was as though Gustavus, through this decisive victory in such a ‘revolutionary’ manner, had made a bold statement that the Hapsburg dynasty, that long standing bastion of Catholicism, had been defeated and its’ latest crusade against Protestantism had been utterly crushed. Breitenfeld is the event which bore Gustavus’s name into the hearts and minds of his contemporaries and would later write his name into the books of European history. Two hundred years later, in the relatively liberal nineteenth century, a monument was erected on the battlefield near Leipzig, bearing the phrase: “Glaubensfreiheit für die Welt, rettete bei Breitenfeld – Gustav Adolf, Christ und Held. Am 7. September 1631.” This roughly translates to: “Freedom of Belief for the World, salvaged at Breitenfeld, Gustav Adolf, Christian and Hero. 7 September 1631.”[10]

Breitenfeld Monument. Located near Leipzig, Germany.

Breitenfeld Monument. Located near Leipzig, Germany.

The similarities between the Spanish, Dutch, and Swedish armies highlighted is no meagre coincidence as it has been argued that many of the innovations Gustavus heralded were either not his own creations or were acts of miraculous accident.[11] Gustavus perfected lessons from his counterparts as much as he innovated. Some historians have argued that the innovations of the Swedish army during the Thirty Years War came about as a result of a lack of resources, problems that Gustavus managed to turn into advantages.[12] That is to suggest that the reduction in the size of regiments was down to a shortage of soldiers, that the lightening of cavalry armour was a result of a lack of sturdier armour, and that the cavalry reliance on swords over pistols was made necessary by a lack of pistols.[13] However if this is argument holds true, and considering the contemporary logistics of waging wars on foreign soil it might well so, then it does not detract from the legacy of Gustavus Adolphus and only serves to reiterate his brilliance as a military leader for turning deficiencies into victories.[14]

Although some of the innovations Gustavus is attributed with are dubious at best, his status as a brilliant commander, an influential and adored statesman, as man of great integrity and one of the greatest European monarchs in history are not open to debate. Gustavus Adolphus is revered as a national hero in Sweden and his actions are likewise revered worldwide and across history. His sudden and decisive victories against the Hapsburgs and the Holy Roman Empire by utilizing arts of warfare hitherto unsuspected are why the centuries of slow evolutionary change that preceded him have largely been forgotten or neglected by historians; this is why Gustavus is said to have caused a ‘military revolution’; this is why he is accredited with so many innovations. As Napoleon unwittingly suggested Gustavus Adolphus was simply the first identifiable great commander of the modern age and is why he is referred to as “The Father of Modern Warfare”. It is a grandiose title but if one chooses to engage the past on its’ own terms and considers contemporary elements it is a valid title to bestow.

This brings us to the second question this article set out to address: Was there a ‘military revolution’? Ever since the term was first coined by Professor Michael Roberts in 1955 during a lecture at the University of Belfast it has been contested between historians.[15] Michael Robert’s thesis places what he calls “the military revolution” between 1560 and 1660 and breaks it down into four distinct areas of revolutionary change: tactics, strategy, increased scale of warfare, and the increased impact of war on societies.[16] At a first glance it appears that Robert’s thesis, especially in the case of the Thirty Years War and Gustavus Adolphus is resoundingly accurate as it not only fits the time scale but also fulfils all four tenants of the theory. Robert’s thesis has since won over many historians such as Geoffrey Parker and Peter Paret who have respectively gone on to either expand the theory in the case of the former or merely acknowledge it in the case of the latter.[17] Geoffrey Parker went on to expand the timeframe of the military revolution by a good two hundred years and this has understandably drawn fire from historians who were either dubiously curious about the original theory or who outright denied it. Among these historians is our university’s own Professor Jeremy Black who has written extensively on military history, writing around ninety books in total.

Professor Jeremy Black

Professor Jeremy Black

Jeremy Black’s criticism of the military revolution theory is multi-pronged.[18] Firstly, how could a revolution take three centuries to reach fruition? Secondly, was the process of military evolution more of a slower evolutionary process rather than a sudden revolutionary one? Thirdly, Black stoutly believes that the theory is far too ‘Eurocentric’ and fails to take into account innovations and key events beyond the western world.[19] Fourthly and finally, would have changes in warfare not naturally progressed as military technology improved and populations expanded, much like the way subsistence was broken in England during the agricultural revolution? [20] This is not to suggest that Jeremy Black is entirely hostile to the concept of the military revolution, rather he dislikes the term because it is too simplistic and its’ timeframe is wrong.[21]

Geoffrey Parker presents an amicable defence to the first of these criticisms by drawing a comparison to the agricultural and scientific revolutions by stating; “Not all revolutions in history are alike. In the political sphere, one expects a ‘sharp, sudden change or attempted change in the area of political power’. Dramatic changes in other spheres, however, take far longer and present more complexity because they affect, almost by definition, more than one country.”[22] Parker’s use of the scientific revolution as a crutch on the other hand is probably not the best idea as that term remains under historical scrutiny for similar reasons. Parker’s defence also fails to fully address the issue of Eurocentricism as, despite acknowledging that changes came to ‘more than one country’, the countries affiliated with the military revolution are still exclusively European. However, one can argue that the process of the evolution of warfare in the Early Modern World would ultimately come to revolutionise the world as it’s’ contemporaries knew it. The grand victories of Gustavus Adolphus using quasi-revolutionary tactics and strategies amplified the contemporary reaction to his battles and therefore give one the impression that his actions during the Thirty Years War were revolutionary when, in reality, they were not. The problem therefore, in conclusion, lies in the definition of this process as there certainly were changes in warfare between the seventeenth and early nineteenth centuries but they were hardly a ‘revolutionary’ change as we know it. The term ‘revolution’ is too grandiose for an evolutionary process that took centuries to conclude and therefore a more suitable title for the theory of the ‘Military Revolution’ would be ‘The European Military Evolution’.


[1] Jay Luvaas, Frederick the Great on the Art of War (Massachusetts, 2009), p.1

[2] ibid

[3] C. V. Edgewood, The Thirty Years War (London, 1938), p.270

[4] Peter Paret, The Makers of Modern Strategy, from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age (Princeton, 1986), p.47

[5] Edgewood, The Thirty Years War, p.275

[6] C. L. R. Fletcher, Heroes of The Nations: Gustavus Adolphus (London, 1990), p.125

[7] Herbert Fisher, A History of Europe (London, 1936), p.621

[8] Carl Hallendorff; Adolf Schuck, The History of Sweden (Stockholm, 1929), p.238

[9] Fletcher, Heroes of the Nations, p.128

[10] Edgewood, The Thirty Years War, pp.302-3

[11] Geoffrey Parker, Military Innovation and the Rise of the West: 1500 – 1800 (Cambridge, 1996), p.23

[12] Richard Brzezinski, The Army of Gustavus Adolphus (Oxford, 1993), p.55

[13] ibid

[14] Martin Van Creveld, The Transformation of War (New York, 1991), pp.111-113

[15] Geoffrey Parker, The “Military Revolution” 1560-1660– A Myth?, The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 48, No. 2 (June, 1976), p.195

[16] Ibid, p.196

[17] Paret, The Makers of Modern Strategy, p.37

[18] Jeremy Black, War in the Early Modern World, 1450 – 1815 (London, 1999), pp.2-6

[19] Jeremy Black, Addressing Eurocentricism, Rethinking Military History (London, 2004) (Chapter)

[20] Christopher Trueman, Was There a Military Revolution? (2011)  http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/military_revolution.htm (Last Accessed: 23/02/14)

[21] Clifford Rogers, The Military Revolution Debate: Readings on the Military Transformation of Early Modern Europe (Colorado, 1995), p.6 (Google E-Book)

[22] Parker, The Military Revolution, p.157

4 comments

  1. Viviane Vincent · · Reply

    C’est intéressant j’aime votre blog ,Bonne Continuation & http://parisplombierpascher.wordpress.com/

  2. Nice post! But I think you will find that the author of the book referenced in footnotes 5 and 10 is Wedgwood, not Edgewood.

  3. Since European countries have invaded most other contries in the world since the industrial revolution, perhaps it isn’t so far fetched to say the way we make war today was born in Europe?

    1. That’s a good point but if we want to take that thread to its extreme one could say that Naval Warfare is an African/Arabic invention and that Artillery Warfare is a Chinese/Turkish invention.

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