Jamel Ostwald's
Gateway to the Early Modern World



Below is an expanded version of my response to Ciro Paoletti's Letter to the Editor to be printed in the April 2001 issue of the Journal of Military History, which in turn was prompted by my "The 'Decisive' Battle of Ramillies, 1706: Prerequisites for Decisiveness in Early Modern Warfare," in the journal's July 2000 issue. I would invite further discussion of this topic (ostwald.1@osu.edu), and promise to post the responses here if requested. I hope in the future to start an early modern military history website/discussion group, which could somewhat "institutionalize" such debates. On this, see my manifesto.

I would like to thank Ciro Paoletti for his positive comments on my article. It is good for an English-reading audience to read views of the War of the Spanish Succession that do not assume the Anglo-centric bent so prevalent in Marlborough's biographies. I am concerned, however, that the main thrust of my argument may have been missed. The intention of my article was not simply to argue that Marlborough failed to implement his decisive battle strategy, but to suggest further that there were unavoidable "structural" reasons why it was very difficult for any commander to successfully implement such a battle-seeking strategy, certainly in Flanders during the War of the Spanish Succession, and quite possibly in other theaters and other early modern wars as well. I fear that Mr. Paoletti has simply replaced the French-as-battlephobes, pro-Marlborough, anti-Dutch, battle-centric historiography I criticize with a French-as-battlephobes, pro-Eugene, anti-Dutch, battle-centric historiography. I would like to briefly comment, therefore, on the points Mr. Paoletti has made.

Mr. Paoletti is indeed correct in pointing out that Louis XIV, like all politicians and commanders, varied his strategy (i.e. his decision whether to seek battle or not) based on the conditions at the time. I would argue that military strategy was determined far more by political objectives and the context of the theaters (terrain, climate, state of fortifications in the region, etc.) than by some psychological/philosophical dichotomy between battle-philic and battle-phobic commanders who imposed their will on a tabula rasa. Clearly battles could be forced under certain early modern conditions, as I tried to qualify in the text: as a recent example, in the October 2000 issue of this journal Derek Croxton highlighted the relative ease with which armies were surprised in 1640's Germany. The important question is to determine what these conditions were, where, when, and then how often these favorable conditions coincided in early modern Europe. The common practice of simply relying on the assertions of battle-focused commanders (e.g. Marlborough, or even Vendôme, who is largely responsible for there being a battle at Oudenaarde in 1708) fails to convince, however, since examples and counter-examples of contemporary quotes about the likelihood of forcing battle could be traded back and forth to little avail. Looking at tactics and how they were implemented on the ground is an obvious place to start, and we should pay particular attention to the ability to force a full-scale battle, where the entirety of both field armies engage in the battle. Forcing only a portion of the enemy army to fight, which Marlborough did on several occasions, cannot have the consequences that a victory against their entire field army would have. If we can analyze early modern campaigns without assuming that battle is the be-all and end-all of war, we might gain a more nuanced judgment of pre-Napoleonic commanders and their decisions. This would also open up room for a new appreciation of partisan and economic warfare. [return to Paoletti's letter]

It seems that Mr. Paoletti has privileged Eugene of Savoy's battle-seeking strategy over the Dutch interest in sieges during the 1712 campaign. Clearly the Dutch had their own specific goals (a barrier of fortresses foremost among them) and a corresponding strategy, sieges, to achieve those goals. Blaming the Dutch of "obstructionism," however, implies that only a decisive battle could achieve the Allies' objectives, or else that the Austrian (or English) objectives were more legitimate than the Dutch. While I did not cover the point in any detail, Olaf van Nimwegen has done an excellent job of showing that many of the "limitations" the Dutch imposed on their allies were grounded in undeniable logistical considerations. Nor does it make sense to criticize an ally without whom the war simply could not be fought. The Dutch contributed the majority of troops in the theater throughout the war and were responsible for supplying not only their own troops, but also assisted the British and Imperialists in the theater with theirs as well; the Dutch for example, had for several years been providing loans to feed the Imperialist soldiers and horses in Flanders. The Dutch concern for money is quite understandable and certainly no different than their allies who fought for their own economic interests (the British overseas and the Austrians in northern Italy, for example), but with the additional complication that the Dutch economy (on the decline before the war even began) had already paid with blood and money for well over twenty expensive sieges in Flanders, and were footing the bill for Landrecies and Quesnoy as well. As for the utility of fighting yet another battle, the Dutch had already lost an enormous number of their troops at their last battle of Malplaquet in 1709, and now in 1712 the British regiments under the Duke of Ormond were neutralized due to their "restraining orders" (a semi-secret cease-fire with the French). It is possible that a battle deep in France in 1712 might have finally put an end to the war, but on the other hand it was obvious one couldn't be far off in any case, and perhaps it's not surprising then that the Dutch were hesitant to have a foreign general jeopardize their advantages at the peace table with another risky battle. Alliance warfare is rife with examples of allies being blamed for failure, so before concluding that the Dutch unfairly hindered Eugene from his decisive battle, I hope that Mr. Paoletti will also consider the Dutch perspective more thoroughly than the Marlburists have when lionizing their favorite captain-general. [return to Paoletti's letter]

As for the issue of decisive battles, Mr. Paoletti and I do in fact disagree whether Ramillies can be considered a "decisive" battle or not. While he declares Ramillies indecisive with an emphatic No!, I argue that Ramillies was decisive (as measured by the destruction of the French field army as well as the subsequent capture of Spanish Brabant and Flanders - criteria offered by other historians as the mechanism for what makes a battle decisive), but it was only decisive because of the specific operational context in which the battle was fought. Part of the issue may be that we have different ideas of how to measure decision. I judge decisiveness within the time frame of a single campaign for a number of reasons. First, campaigning was divided into six- or seven-month periods, punctuated by winter quarters; this divided up the war into almost independent campaigns which allowed the enemy to reinforce and regroup after defeat, and therefore makes it quite natural to judge the effects of a battle in the same year in which it was fought. Second, if one takes a longer perspective the decisiveness of a battle will change by year: in 1706 and 1707 Ramillies was decisive, in 1708 it wasn’t (according to Paoletti at least), but in 1709-1712 it was decisive again because the French gains of 1708 were reversed. Looking at decisiveness in such a long-term perspective doesn't strike me as a very useful way to analyze the issue. Finally, just because the results of a decisive battle were reversed does not necessarily mean that it was not originally decisive; instead it is possible that another decisive event simply negated the earlier one.

But even according to Mr. Paoletti's criteria, the battle was still decisive, since the Allies enjoyed most of the fruits of the 1706 campaign even after Ghent and Bruges had fallen: they maintained their control over all of Spanish Brabant as well as retaining several towns in Spanish Flanders (including Oostende, which would play an important supply role towards the end of the siege of Lille). The French capture of Ghent and Bruges was an embarrassment to the Allies (and Marlborough in particular), and certainly it complicated their supply situation, but despite this setback they were still able to sustain a three-month siege of Lille. They had to haul their heavy cannon overland and feed perhaps 100,000 troops for the rest of the campaign without the use of the Lys, and while this was neither easy nor cheap, these delays did not wipe out post-Ramillies gains. And it is worth noting that the French-held towns in Spanish Flanders quickly fell to the Allies at the end of the 1708 campaign - the Bourbon counter-offensive, not Ramillies, was the flash in the pan. The Allies would go on to penetrate far into the second line of Vauban's pré carré, coming close to piercing it altogether, and even Villars' late offensive in 1712 did not reverse Marlborough's earlier gains in the Spanish Netherlands. The southern Netherlands would not go back to Spain (now ruled by the Bourbon candidate Philippe), but instead was given to the Austrians. Although I am hesitant to judge decisiveness several years after the event, Ramillies still fits the definition of a decisive battle even when measured over the length of the war.
[return to Paoletti's letter]

As for Mr. Paoletti's concluding paragraph, Hear! Hear! Although I have taken issue with his apparent emphasis on battle, I am glad to see that Mr. Paoletti agrees with many of my arguments about Marlborough in particular, and I hope that from this discussion historians can begin to come to some form of agreement over the nature of decisive battle, what it means, when and where it took place, and how it fits into the larger operational context of early modern warfare.



Last updated 03/25/2001