War Classics: History of the Art of War in the Sixteenth Century

Renaissance warfare presents the military historian with exceptional challenges. Students of the Roman Army, the Napoleonic Wars, or the First World War encounter variations on a theme. We know how the Roman legion was structured. We understand the French preference for columns of attack and the British for fighting in line during the Peninsular War. We are all too aware of the reasons for such intractable stalemate on the Western Front of 1914-1918.

No such clear lines guide the student of warfare in the period c.1450 to 1600 – or should it be somewhat later? It was not simply that warfare was transformed by new technology, as battlefields filled up with cannon, arquebusiers, and pistol-armed cavalry. It was that commanders were presented with perplexing tactical problems to which no entirely satisfactory solutions were forthcoming until the wars of Gustavus Adolphus, Oliver Cromwell, and Turenne in the mid-17th century.

This is immediately apparent from the most cursory reading of this masterpiece of military history, Charles Oman’s History of the Art of War in the Sixteenth Century. The author tells us that he was encouraged to write it by colleagues who admired his History of the Art of War in the Middle Ages (1885). The demand was that he should continue the story beyond 1485, his earlier cut-off, when he was only at the brink of the great changes about to unfold. He duly obliged, though not until the 1930s, mainly because he was so busy with other projects.

Charles Oman (1860-1946) was a phenomenally talented and prolific scholar. Born in India, he had been educated at Winchester and Oxford, becoming a Fellow of All Souls in 1881 and Chichele Professor of Modern History in 1905, thus remaining at Oxford throughout his long academic career – though his studies were interrupted by government service during the First World War and, more intermittently, by his duties as MP for the University of Oxford between 1919 and 1935.

Sir Charles Oman

Image: Wikimedia Commons
Born: 12 January 1860
Died: 23 June 1946
Nationality: British
Oman was the son of a British planter in the Muzaffarpur district of India. His own children also became authors. Carola Oman wrote several biographies, including of Nelson and Sir John Moore, while his son Charles C Oman wrote many volumes on British silverware and was a Keeper of the Department of Metalwork at the V&A Museum in London.

Pike and shot

What is immediately striking, reading Oman, is the depth of his scholarship. He had a reading knowledge of several European languages, and he seems to have trawled every available primary source he could lay his hands on when writing his major works of military history. These are works of exceptional length and detail. His History of the Peninsular War, published in seven volumes between 1902 and 1930, runs to almost 5,000 pages, and while judgements can be questioned, the rigour of the research cannot.

He was, for sure, opinionated and trenchant, yet his reasoning is faithfully presented, and the reader can choose whether or not to follow him, without ever doubting the reliability of his reportage, in so far as the (often highly tainted) source material allows.

The History of the Art of War in the Sixteenth Century might easily be the magnum opus of a leading historian. It is 770 pages long and takes us from the start of the Italian Wars, that epic and futile confrontation between French Valois and Austrian/ Spanish Habsburg monarchs, in 1494, down to the end of the long struggle between Catholic Spain and Protestant Dutch rebels in 1607 and the fizzling out of the Ottoman-Habsburg struggle in Hungary and the Mediterranean the year before.

Oman’s primary interest is battlefield tactics. He is less interested in fortification and sieges, though he does not ignore them, including detailed analyses, for example, of the Ottoman sieges of Rhodes (1522), Vienna (1529), and Malta (1565). He is minimally interested in the logistics of war, though he always deals thoroughly enough with the impact of difficulties of military movement and supply on the outcome of actual operations. The only naval action described in detail is the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, whereas the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 is a mere footnote. Oman’s real concern is always with the organisation of land-based military forces, their arrangement on the battlefield, and the clash of the alternative ways of war they represent.

At the heart of this concern is Oman’s study of the contemporary search for new tactics appropriate to new technologies, and the manner in which different national traditions responded, for better or worse, in distinctive ways – the English clinging to the longbow, the French prioritising cannon and armoured cavalry, the Swiss and the Germans fielding dense blocs of pikemen, the Spanish employing field fortifications lined with arquebusiers.

A critical question was the most effective way of combining the different arms – artillery, arquebusiers, pikemen, heavy cavalry, and light cavalry. For combination was critical. Like the old children’s game ‘Rock, Paper, Scissors’, any particular arm on its own could always be neutralised by another – shot could destroy pike blocs, cavalry could run down arquebusiers, and so on. This raised the further question of proportionality: between shot and pike, foot and horse, shock troops and light troops.

A new way of war

What we notice as we read this exceptional text is the slow working out of these problems. Oman becomes explicit about the emergence of a new tactical system in the concluding chapter of his final section, where he analyses the outcome of the Ottoman–Habsburg struggle. As it happens, he is quoting a contemporary description of a formal array that was not in fact put to the test of battle, for Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent declined Emperor Charles V’s challenge, instead turning away to conduct minor operations against frontier towns during his 1532 campaign in Hungary. But the evidence here for a feeling towards an effective tactical system is obvious:

The Battle of Nieuwpoort, 1600. Detail from a painting by Sebastian Vrancx. An Anglo-Dutch army defeated the supposedly invincible Spanish in open battle. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The Christian army lay in a great field before Vienna in this order. In the centre were three great squadrons of pikemen, each a great way distant from the other, but with a like and equal front, so that all the horsemen, divided into two parts, might well be ordered in the great spaces between the three squadrons, for it was not considered convenient to oppose so small a force of horsemen in the open field without footmen, against so vast numbers of the Turk’s horsemen…

Before and behind the squadrons of pikes, saving in the spaces left open for the horsemen, were placed 20,000 nimble arquebusiers, five in a rank, so that when the first rank had discharged, the second, and so the rest, orderly coming on, might deliver their bullets against the enemy. And if they found themselves opposed, they might easily retire among the pikes, standing so close to hand.

In front of the arquebusiers were planted the great ordnance, of which the Emperor had such good store that he could therewith have compassed his whole army as with a trench.

The book is splendidly organised. A strictly chronological approach would have left the reader hopelessly muddled as the focus shifted constantly from one region and army to another. So we begin with an overview section that discusses the main military systems at the opening of the period – French, Spanish, Swiss, German, and Italian – and then we have successive sections covering the early Italian Wars, the later Italian Wars, England under the Tudors, the French Wars of Religion, the Dutch Revolt, and finally the Ottoman attack on Christendom.

Immediately apparent is the fact that this is not a comprehensive history of war in the period. It is not even a comprehensive history of European warfare at the time, for warfare in northern and eastern Europe does not feature at all. We learn nothing of the Swedes, the Poles, and the Russians – who were, in fact, embroiled in major wars during the 16th century. And the rest of the world is entirely beyond Oman’s remit. To mention three obvious examples, this is the time of the conquistadors in Mexico and Peru, the Mughal conquest of India, and large-scale invasions of Korea by armies of Japanese samurai.

This is not criticism, only comment. No single scholar could achieve mastery of two dozen languages and (in the 1930s, at any rate) have gained access to the widely dispersed source material to produce a global history of 16th-century warfare executed at the level of detail and insight Oman achieves in this book. This would have to be a multi-volume study by a team of specialist scholars. Oman worked alone and restricted himself to the terrain he knew.

What stands out above all are his vivid battle reconstructions. Reading these, I find myself utterly absorbed by the clarity, drama, and insight with which he explains the course of the action, and I feel that I emerge each time with full understanding of why things played out as they did – why the Spanish entrenched camp was overwhelmed at Ravenna in 1512, why the Scots were vanquished at Pinkie in 1547, why Henry IV crushed the Catholic League at Ivry in 1590, and why Maurice of Nassau triumphed at Nieuwpoort in 1600.

If you want to understand the European military transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, no better book could be recommended. •