Asked to give his verdict on the foreign policy of Queen Elizabeth, Sir Walter Raleigh replied that: “Her Majesty did all by halves.” It was a fair criticism, but it was one which could be levelled against every European ruler at the time: against the kings of France and Spain, the German Protestant princes, even against the [Dutch] States General. None of them would or could put all their eggs in one basket. All of them tried to win their wars by “half-doing”. The casual character, the insouciance, of the Eighty Years’ War in particular stands out as one of its most important and most persistent traits.
Yet what alternative was there? Certainly the fate of the Netherlands was important to Spain, England, France and Germany, but was it more important than their commitments or ambitions elsewhere? Should England abandon her position in Ireland in order to support the Dutch; should Spain neglect the defence of the Mediterranean in order to suppress the revolt in the Low Countries? These were real choices, for no European state in the early modern period possessed sufficient resources to fight effectively in the Netherlands and also attain its political objectives elsewhere. The policies of the various major combatants in the Low Countries’ Wars must therefore be considered within the context of their overall foreign ambitions and overseas commitments; changes in one were normally linked with changes in the other; the course of the war was often affected by events far outside the Netherlands. From the very first, as we shall see, the Dutch Revolt was a problem which no government could tackle in isolation.
Tag: Early Modern Age
Every captain in an early modern army held enormous power over the rank and file of his company. In absolute charge of discipline he could flog, fine, or otherwise humiliate his men whenever he chose; because he alone decided who should perform sentry guard and other onerous duties, the captain was free to victimize the men he disliked and excuse his friends…. [Without] interference from above, [a Spanish Empire] captain chose the two sergeants and eight corporals of his company (the cabos de escuadra or corporals were in charge of twenty-five men and received a wage-bonus of 3 escudos each per month), and he distributed at his pleasure 30 escudos of treasury bonus-pay among his men. As if this were not enough, the insolvency of the military treasury made the company captains into money-lenders and welfare-officers as well. Every company had a chest (caja) kept by the captain and used by him to advance subsistence wages (the socorro) to necessitous men when no money arrived from the treasury. The captains were also responsible for ransoming, re-arming, or re-horsing any of their men who had the misfortune to lose their liberty, their weapons, or their mounts. Naturally when the treasury did contrive to pay an [installment] of wages the captains expected to receive it first in order to deduct the sums already advanced “on account”. The scheme was excellent in principle, but it assumed that all captains were honest and scrupulous men. Of course they were not…. “The arrangements for paying the troops played right into the eager hands of the captains, who took full advantage of the generous opportunities afforded them.”
Not all recruits were destitute or base-born, however. The Army of Flanders, especially in the sixteenth century [C.E.], needed quality as well as quantity; men who excelled in single combat, in the “actions” of the war, were required as well as cannon-fodder for the great battles. Every captain therefore tried to enlist a number of gentlemen (particulares) to serve as common soldiers in his company, offering a bonus-pay (ventaja) to every gentleman who agreed to do so. Some of these volunteers would be the relatives of the captain, others would no doubt be poor gentry unable to gain a living in other ways (Spanish gentlemen were not supposed to demean themselves by manual labour or commercial transactions), others still would be aspiring noblemen who began their military service in the ranks and hoped before long to rise to a position of command.
Most army commanders set the highest value upon these gentleman-rankers. The duke of Alva, for example, was overjoyed to find that a large number of particulares had volunteered to serve in the Spanish infantry which he led to the Netherlands in 1567.
Soldiers of this calibre [wrote Alva] are the men who win victory in the “actions” and with whom the General establishes the requisite discipline among the troops. In our nation nothing is more important than to introduce gentlemen and men of substance into the infantry so that all is not left in the hands of labourers and lackeys.
Throughout the Eighty Years’ War the same sentiment was expressed in remarkably similar terms. As late as 1640, for example, a Netherlander—and a civilian at that—could write:
Gentleman-rankers…are the people who bear the brunt of the battles and sieges, as we have seen on many occasions, and who by their example oblige and enliven the rest of the soldiers (who have less sense of duty) to stand fast and fight with courage.
Service as a volunteer among the infantry was particularly popular among the Spanish gentry, but particulares were also to be found in considerable numbers in the ranks of other “nations”. The English units in the Army of Flanders, for example, regularly included Catesbys, Treshams and other members of the leading recusant gentry families—including Guy Fawkes. Not all these gentleman-rankers were poor. On one celebrated occasion the Emperor Charles V lent additional dignity to the military profession by himself taking up a pike and marching with his men; later, in the 1590s, the dukes of Osuna and Pastrana and the prince of Asculi, scions of the most illustrious houses of Spain, were all to be found serving as simple soldiers in the Army of Flanders. Naturally these volunteers, especially the nobles, aspired to an eventual position of command, but they first received an admirable apprenticeship and, in addition, their presence in the ranks helped to maintain morale and reduce insubordination. In this way the Spanish Habsburgs assembled armies which were supremely capable of victory without resort to any compulsion.
— The Army of Flanders and the Spanish Road 1567-1659, pp. 40-41
Although military historians have tended to confine their attention to the formal engagements of the war [in the Low Countries], to the sieges, battles and major manoeuvres, these events formed only the tip of the iceberg of military conflict. Beneath the interplay of the big battalions, at least until 1590 [C.E.], smaller parties of troops fought, intrigued and killed ceaselessly for the control of villages. Spain’s piecemeal reconquest of the areas in rebellion in the first phase of the war created a jagged “floating” frontier, running from one fortified town to another, from one village to the next. Until 1594 the frontier ran from Groningen in the north down to Liège and then westwards to the Flemish sea-coast. All along this invisible line hostile parties of troops conducted a gruelling war of skirmish and surprise. In this situation…war became a matter of “fights, encounters, skirmishes, ambushes, an occasional battle, minor sieges, assaults, escalades, captures and surprises of towns”. It resembled a series of uncoordinated guerilla conflicts rather than a single full-scale war.
These localized dog-fights, this guerre aux vaches, was a highly intensive and exhausting form of warfare. It called for troops with an unusually high degree of endurance and experience. In battles or mass manoeuvres a commander required from his men corporate discipline, good order, careful drilling in certain collective movements and above all stoicism under fire. By contrast, for the skirmish and surprise of guerilla fighting, discipline and unit-organization hardly mattered: the critical qualities were independent excellence and complete familiarity with weapons.
Sixteenth-century commanders and military commentators naturally realized that these different forms of warfare required different types of soldier: one for routine garrison duty and mass manoeuvres, the other for guerilla action. On the whole they agreed that it was more difficult to find troops who excelled in skirmish-and-surprise, in what the English called the “actions” of war. For that veterans were required. The duke of Alva always insisted that some trained troops were indispensable for success in the Low Countries’ Wars because “One cannot fight any ‘actions’ with other troops—unless it comes to a pitched battle where entire formations are engaged.” To the duke’s mind (and he had a lifetime of experience to draw on) any troops could fight a battle but it required trained veterans to win a skirmish.
— The Army of Flanders and the Spanish Road 1567-1659, pp. 12-13
Shall we say “adventurers?” 🙂
Some time in 1614 [C.E.] a complete set of toy soldiers, made of wood, was presented to the young prince of Spain, later King Philip IV. There were regiments and companies with their various banners, weapons and equipment, there were horses and cannon for the artillery, even the distinctive shops and tents of the armourers, sutlers and barbers who followed every army. Special materials were included for the construction of artificial lakes, forests and pontoon bridges, and there was a toy castle for the “army” to besiege. And this, the first child’s “war-game” known in Europe, was proudly described by its inventor in a special publication in Spanish and Latin. The toy was no less grandiose in intention than in execution: it was to give education as well as enjoyment. “This army will be no less useful than entertaining” the designer, one Alberto Struzzi, wrote to the prince. “From it one may observe the expenditure which is necessary if a King is to emerge victorious, and how if money (which is the sinews of war) fails, the prince’s intentions cannot be achieved.” Armies which are not paid invariably fall prey to disorders, desertion and defeat, warned the inventor.
The ultimate aim of this war-game was to make Prince Philip aware of the existence of the Spanish Netherlands and of the army which defended them. The prince’s splendid toy was in fact a perfect replica of the most famous army of the day, the Army of Flanders, maintained by Spain in the Low Countries since 1567. It was never too early to teach a future king of Spain that his power was underpinned largely by military strength and that his armies could function only for as long as they were paid.