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The Tactics which Changed Military History
on 23 June 2010
The Osprey Elite books are a series of very influential, brief, and highly illustrated `dips' into the chosen subject matter. Of considerable importance to their target audiences, namely wargamers and general history readers who desire to know a little of the flavour of the subject, they are nevertheless self-consciously nothing more than accessible introductions to the subject. It therefore surprises me that other reviewers have criticised this book as being `unbalanced', or too short. It's an Osprey, not a thesis.
The thrust of the work is that the development of infantry units into smaller, more mobile, broader fronted formations, deployed into self-supporting linens, backed up by light field artillery; made possible the best effective use of infantry firepower to break up massed shock assaults by heavily armed but plodding tercios of pike and shot. This development was triggered by a contemporary rediscovery and re-evaluation of the classic republican Roman army. Due to the necessary constraints of space Roberts has had to adopt a rigorous teleological approach to his subject matter - the development of pike and shot tactics and the eventual supersession of the Spanish tercio system during one of the crucial phases of the `Military Revolution' being accepted as a given.
The development of infantry formations into a mobile, predominately firepower orientated system was a somewhat faltering process. The Dutch victory at Nieuport showed that the new system could work, The Swedish, who developed the Dutch style into their own, confirmed it at Breitenfeld (though, ironically, the allied Saxon army drawn up in Dutch style were routed), and Rocroi established it. However, before Breitenfeld the Spanish tercio system continued to gain battlefield success. In fact, once the Imperial and Spanish forces had learned to adapt their tercios to using similar tactics (crushing the Swedish and Protestant armies at Nordlingen), a new composite `German' system gained precedence. Roberts skilfully guides us through this process with a stunning display of military theory, ably backed by wonderful and lucid illustrations to reveal exactly how armies of the period fought.
My only minor criticism would be that little explanation is given to the reasons why the progressive German states who adopted the new Dutch tactics continued to lose against the Spanish and Imperial tercios. It would have been useful to have seen a paragraph or two devoted to the enormous costs involved in reforming armies to deliver Dutch style tactics. One of the key aspects of the Military Revolution being the necessary Financial Revolution needed to maintain trained armies in the field. The huge increase in trained junior officers and NCOs' required to implement the Dutch and Swedish style of warfare could only be done by State's with the wealth to sustain it. That is why the Dutch were able to train and maintain forces drilled in the new styles and the small German states weren't. In a similar vein, the perennial financial problems of the Spanish State meant as long as the tercio system could still provide battlefield success, there were pressing economic reasons why the Spanish were reluctant to change their system, other than adapting the tercio to enable more firepower to be brought to effect. This is reflected in the Spanish persisting with the tercio system right up until 1704.
Overall, this book provides an excellent and affordable insight into the development of pike and shot tactics in the first half of the Seventeenth Century and I highly recommended it to all.