Wednesday, 8 November 2006

the ungentlemanly art of killing at distance

The prosecution of mobile operations with artillery and firearms demanded, therefore, a change in the cultural attitude of Renaissance armies. Though they had admitted gunpowder technology to their traditional practices, they had not adjusted to its logic. Like the Mamelukes who bore down, sword in hand, on the firearms of the Egyptian sultan’s black slaves, they were still trapped in an ethos which accorded warrior status only to horsemen and to infantry prepared to stand and fight with edged weapons. Fighting at a distance with missiles was beneath the descendants of the armoured men-at-arms who had dominated European warmaking since the age of Charlemagne. They wanted to fight from horseback, as their grandfathers had done, and they wanted such infantry man as accompanied them to bear the manly risks of standing to receive cavalry at point of pike. If guns had to take their place on the battlefield, then let it be behind ramparts, which was where missile weapons had always belonged. What the horse soldier did not want to see was the sturdy footman reduced to the level of the cunning crossbow mercenary: what he wanted to do even less was dismount and learn the black art of gunpowder himself.
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The force of this face-to-face tradition [as opposed to killing at distance by spear, bow or gunpowder] provoked the warrior crisis of the sixteenth century. The attitude to crossbowmen of Bayard, chevalier sans peur et sans reproche, is well known; he had them executed when taken prisoner, on the ground that their weapon was a cowardly one and their behaviour treacherous. Armed with a crossbow a man might, without any of the long apprenticeship to arms necessary to make a knight, and equally without the moral effort required of a pike-wielding footman, kill either of them from a distance without putting himself in danger. What was true of the crossbowman was even more true of the handgunner; the way he fought seemed equally cowardly, and noisy and dirty as well, while requiring no muscular effort whatsoever. ‘What is the use, any more,’ asked the biographer of the sixteenth-century warrior Louis de la Tremouille, ‘of the skill-at-arms of the knights, their strength, their hardihood, their discipline and their desire for honour when such [gunpowder] weapons may be used in war?’

Yet, for all the protests of the traditional warrior class, it was clear by the mid-sixteenth century that firearms as well as cannon had come to stay. The arquebus and the heavier musket, both fired by a mechanism which brought a slow match to the priming-pan by the release of a trigger, were efficient weapons, the latter capable of penetrating armour at 200-240 paces. The foot-soldier's breastplate was of decreasing value as a means of protection; even more ominously, so was the horseman's full armour. By the end of the century it was no longer worn, and cavalry itself was losing its decisive purpose on the battlefield. That purpose had always been equivocal; the effect of a cavalry charge had always depended more on the moral frailty of those receiving it than on the objective power of horse and rider. And once the horseman encountered an opponent who could muster the resolve to stand, as the Swiss pikemen had found, or a weapon that could bring a rider to the ground with certainty, as the musket could, the right of the knightly class to determine how armies should be ordered, and to retain an equivalent social pre-eminence, was called into question. In France and Germany, the aristocracies held out against the pressure 'to dismount in order to stiffen foot soldiery', but the facts of life were not on their side, and neither were the state paymasters, who increasingly wanted value for money. In England, Italy and Spain the traditional military class were readier to scent the changed direction in which the breeze was blowing, to embrace the new technology of gunpowder and to persuade itself that to fight on foot might be an honourable calling after all.

p331-334, John Keegan, A History of Warfare

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