In November 2016 I expressed a desire to read Fernando González de León’s article “Spanish Military Power and the Military Revolution.” As I found the citation in a forum post from 2011, it occurred to me that I might as well order the book instead of spending another five years wishing and hoping. González challenges Maurice of Nassau’s claim that after reading Aelian’s tactical manual he invented a drill where soldiers fired one rank at a time and then countermarched to get out of the way while they reloaded their cumbersome weapons. (The original letter in which Maurice makes this claim survives, and photos of his sketch of the new tactic have been reprinted in, if I remember correctly, Parker’s Military Revolution). González thinks this was already practised in Hapsburg armies. I wrote this post back in 2017, and decided to post it after listening to the Ancient Warfare Podcast on Ancient Military Manuals in June 2018.
This drill was developed to meet the needs of a particular time and place. In the 16th and 17th centuries, soldiers loaded their matchlock muskets and arquebuses with loose powder and balls and defended themselves with swords and daggers. Manipulating all of this equipment and a lit match without setting oneself on fire or shooting a neighbour was a slow process, and there was a danger that infantry who fired all at once would be over-run by enemies before they could reload. Clubbed muskets or cheap swords were no match for pikes or lances, and when more than two or three ranks of soldiers tried to fire at once, they tended to shoot, deafen, or ignite each other. Ordering the front rank to fire and then countermarch (march to the rear between their file and its neighbour) was a convenient way to get them out of the way while they reloaded. Famously, soldiers in Europe and Japan took to this drill, while soldiers in India and most of the Moslem world rejected it. By the 18th century, infantry were armed with bayonets and issued with pre-made paper cartridges and muskets which made their own fire, and other drills were developed to suit new conditions. Having defined what we are looking for, let see how González’ argument holds up: