Saturday, November 5, 2016

Monarchies, Militaries and Equality

We are fairly far from it these days but, once upon a time, the lack of egalitarianism in the militaries of the monarchies of the world was a fairly major talking point for republics. It is still brought up, from time to time, as an illustration of how woefully backward and laughingly incompetent the pre- “equality for all” worldview was. So, you would have stories about how aristocratic Englishmen were bested in the American War for Independence by the stout-hearted, common sense of common-born New England patriots or how the armies of the crowned heads of Europe were crushed by the upstart artilleryman from Corsica who brought egalitarianism to the French military, boasting that ‘every French soldier has a marshal’s baton in his knapsack’. Anyone with any education on the subject has probably heard such views, along with illustrations of incompetent, aristocratic dandies who purchased their commissions, of small, cherubic children being given command of regiments based on wealth and family background and so on. This will be, of course, followed up by an exclamation of how fortunate we are to live in a world where such nonsense no longer prevails. But, is this all true?

British redcoats
As with many such propaganda weapons, it is at best a half-truth, exaggerated and with pertinent facts omitted in order to give one a false impression of how society worked in the pre-revolutionary period. It is true that, in the British army for example, the purchase of commissions was standard procedure but was never as widespread as people think. If you had the money, you could be made an officer by the King and the more money you had, the higher a rank you could be. However, purchased commissions often meant moving up in rank rather than obtaining a rank in the first place and the number of officers who purchased their commission was always a small minority. It is true that, in other monarchies, the situation was even less egalitarian than that. In Spain, for another example, one could only be a cavalry officer if one were ‘of the blood’, part of the aristocratic class and no amount of money or talent could ever overcome that obstacle to advancement. However, for the rest of the army, one third of all officers were raised from the ranks and thus common-born. They were, however, limited to company ranks only (lieutenants and captains) and could never aspire to field rank and certainly could never become a general. This sort of system seems absolutely ludicrous to the modern mind, and it certainly had its examples of failure, however, it really was not so absurd as it seems to our ears today.

First of all, just as it stands, the system prevailed because the system worked. To take the American War as an example, the fact is that most of the time the British army, with its purchased commissions and aristocratic officers, soundly defeated the American rebels time and time again, often in spite of being outnumbered and having a logistical line of support that had to stretch across an ocean it took months to cross. The fact of the matter is that the British system of purchasing commissions provided valuable income for retired officers (who would sell their commissions) at a time before any system of pensions for military service existed. One must also keep in mind that those who could afford to buy a commission in the army were those with the money to do so and, as such, they tended to be people who could also afford to be the best educated and, by either creating such wealth or successfully managing inherited wealth, also had leadership qualities that would prove quite valuable in their military career. A poor man could not purchase a commission, true, but a poor man would also be the least likely to be able to have the time and materials to study the areas which would make one qualified for a military command.

Prussian officers and men
Much the same, of course, would be true for those militaries which restricted officer rank to the aristocratic class. Although not invariably true of course, they were, on average, the most likely to be well-read, well educated and to possess the leadership qualities necessary for military command. Additionally, simply being born with no title does not make one any more naturally gifted than being born with a title does. George Washington was certainly no common laborer and the final victory of his cause was won with the aid of a French army commanded by a count and with his favorite subordinate being a young French marquis, given his rank, by the Continental Congress, entirely because of his name and title. Napoleon was not exactly the perfect definition of “common”, he came from a rather middle-class family which actually had aristocratic roots back in Italy but even his famously egalitarian army was ultimately defeated by an Anglo-German coalition led by an Anglo-Irish aristocrat and a Prussian prince! Likewise, among his continental opponents, the fortunes of war seemed to make no distinction in favor of egalitarianism. To look at the Austrian Empire, for example, the most capable military commanders included an Archduke (Charles of Teschen) and a Prince (Karl Philipp of Schwarzenberg) while one of the most infamously poor, Karl Mack, was a common-born man who was only raised to the nobility the year he was married.

That brings us to another point which is that it is not as though the aristocracy was an entirely exclusive club. Not all monarchies prohibited the idea of advancement based on merit but rather took such outstanding examples and granted them noble title, raising them to the aristocracy and thus making them eligible for leadership positions. In some cases, this was not even a requirement but simply a reward, a recognition of their considerable achievements. To return to Britain for a moment, remember that in the Royal Navy commissions were not purchased, unlike the army, and so advancement purely by merit was quite normal. The most celebrated sailor in British history, indeed many would argue the most famous naval commander in the world, was Lord Horatio Nelson, who was the common-born son of an Anglican priest who only rose to the aristocracy after proving his brilliance in victories over the enemy. In looking at the Napoleonic era and the egalitarianism cheered by so many of the French Revolution, we tend to forget that while, yes, the French did prevail for a time, it was the established monarchies of Europe that ultimately won the final victory. Napoleon had some very capable marshals who were common-born but none had a record of success to match, for example, the aristocratic Russian generalissimo Alexander Suvorov who, in over sixty major engagements, never lost a battle in his entire military career.

Austrian officer leading a charge
The Napoleonic era saw changes in traditional monarchies that did not require radical republicanism to make them happen. In Prussia, for example, early in the Nineteenth Century, the restriction of officer ranks being only for aristocrats was done away with and, while aristocratic officers remained the norm in the upper echelons of the Prussian army up until its demise at the end of World War I, common-born men could and did become Prussian officers. In the Austrian Empire, the system was less restrictive but would, perhaps, still be considered more unfair to modern readers. In Austria it was less who you were but more who you knew. So, someone could be common-born but, with the right connections, could become an officer in the Imperial-Royal Army. How officers were selected also mattered less than what was done with them. In Spain, for example, the problem was not that aristocrats predominated the officer class but rather that there was no formal military academy to train them nor any standard forms of training and discipline to ensure uniformity. Likewise, no matter what their social background, in armies where officers were paid little and had little opportunity for advancement, the quality of the officers was unsurprisingly poor.

However, what if all of that is too far back to be applicable in the more modern day and age? Well, traditional monarchies have not long survived in the last century, but we can look at World War I to see some significant examples. In the Great War, one can easily find a great deal of Allied propaganda aimed against the aristocratic and royal-born commanders of the armies of the Central Powers, particularly the Germans. However, one should consider the source and then it is not so surprising that most of this criticism is extremely unfair and generally unfounded. For example, there was no more prominent target for ridicule among the German army and army group commanders on the western front than the German/Prussian Crown Prince Wilhelm. He was consistently portrayed as an incompetent dandy who owed his rank to his bloodline and who simply wasted the lives of his men. That is simply untrue.

German royal commanders
Now, Crown Prince Wilhelm was certainly no stunning military genius, however, he was certainly competent, capable and proved worthy of the positions he held as an army and later army group commander. A number of historians, even Allied historians, have attested to this fact and stated that had his plan for the Verdun offensive been acted upon, the fortress city would have probably been taken by the Germans and the victory secured (however, as most who know about the Verdun offensive will be aware, taking the city was never really the goal so it was not). Likewise, no serious military historian has ever accused the Crown Prince’s fellow royal commanders of being anything less than capable or even more than capable in their assigned duties such as Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria and Duke Albrecht of Wurttemberg. It may, perhaps, also be worth pointing out that it was not the Germans, who were increasingly outnumbered and hungry as the war went on, who mutinied in vast numbers during the war but rather the very egalitarian army of the French Republic that did so. Still, this sort of class criticism is often applied more seriously to other royal or aristocratic German, and Austrian, commanders who rose up on the eastern front.

In the first place, for the sake of clarity, one should point out that it was on the eastern front where the Central Powers were ultimately successful so, all of this criticism aside, they did win the war in this sector which should count for something. In any event, the system in place was not so ridiculous as it is often portrayed. In Austria-Hungary, for example, Archduke Friedrich was the commander of the army but it was openly known to be a ceremonial position with no pretense that the Archduke was actually planning strategy, coordinating operations and so on. The Chief of Staff was the effective commander of the Austro-Hungarian armies and everyone recognized that fact. In Germany, this sort of dynamic of ‘team leadership’ also prevailed but was more of an actual partnership than most people realize.

The Kaiser with Hindenburg and Ludendorff
Certainly, the most famous “team” in German army leadership was Hindenburg and Ludendorff. However, just as effective was the team that replaced them on the eastern front which was Prince Leopold of Bavaria and his chief of staff General Max Hoffmann. Hoffmann advanced himself by merit and was an extremely brilliant strategist who had a significant impact on the overall successful German campaigns throughout the war on the Russian front. The ambition, however, of men like Hoffmann and Ludendorff also played into the negative portrayal by the Allies of German military leadership. This portrayed the aristocratic Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and the royal-born Prince Leopold of Bavaria as basically useless figureheads who did nothing all day while the victories they won were owed entirely to their subordinates, Erich Ludendorff and Max Hoffmann, who were of more humble origins (naturally, Ludendorff and Hoffmann tended to agree with this general premise). However, this is really a gross exaggeration. Hindenburg and Prince Leopold were both veteran soldiers with a great deal of experience who had plenty for which to recommend them. They were not mere figureheads but were part of a team and the ones who were ultimately responsible for any success or failure on the part of their armies. So, men like Ludendorff and Hoffmann were the planners while Prince Leopold and Hindenburg were the decision-makers. Each had something the other lacked and these ‘teams’ proved extremely effective in the course of the war.

Finally, although this is an obviously debatable point, with the passing of the “Old World” with the last two global conflicts (the latter of which saw a great many mistakes being made by a common-born corporal ignoring the advice of aristocratic military professionals) it seems that as the cause of egalitarianism has grown that the age of truly great military commanders has also come to an end. Conflicts in this egalitarian age have largely been decided by how long an electorate is prepared to tolerate war or have been fought between grossly mismatched contestants in which the outcome is a foregone conclusion. Has there, then, truly been a great upsurge in the quality of military leadership with the age of egalitarianism and the end of aristocracy and traditional monarchy? These days, certainly in the more democratic countries, one would be hard-pressed to even say who exactly is the one in charge, much less whether he (or she or it the way things are going) are competent or not. Many modern conflicts have seemed rather fruitless compared to what was accomplished by even smaller-scale wars in the past.

Maurits van Nassau
After all, if one thinks back to the great captains of history, some of the names that will certainly come to mind, in the more modern era, are those such as Cordoba, Albuquerque, Maurice of Nassau, Gustavus Adolphus, the Duke of Marlborough, Prince Eugene of Savoy, Maurice Comte de Saxe, Frederick the Great, the Duke of Wellington, Graf von Moltke, and so on with royals and aristocrats predominating. Can anyone think of anyone since, or perhaps even including the two World Wars who could truly stand shoulder to shoulder with such men? Can any boast of similar achievements to their own? In American military history, probably no other commander was able to achieve so much with so little, based entirely on his strategic and tactical brilliance rather than any material superiority as General Robert E. Lee and yet, General Lee is universally regarded as an American equivalent of an aristocrat. Certainly you have the likes of Cromwell or Napoleon but they stand out as exceptions which seem to prove the rule.

What is truly alarming about this change in attitudes is that the drive for egalitarianism has not coincided with a devotion to advancement purely on the basis of merit but rather seems to have brought about a dangerous leveling of the military field simply to “virtue signal” how supposedly egalitarian we are. So, we have women in the military, then homosexuals in the military, then women in combat but, so far, none of these changes has been shown to produce a superior product over the old system, though by and large there has been no true test (which no one should be anxious for). It seems more like a race to the bottom than a drive toward excellence. As an illustration, consider the fact that private military organizations, which the United States at least increasingly relies upon, are dominated by traditional, “Alpha” males with nary a woman to be found. It reminds me rather of the late Roman Empire when barbarian mercenaries came to make up the bulk of the Roman military and where truly great military leaders such as Stilicho or Flavius Aetius, were not honored for their victories but were killed by a people who no longer valued talent but feared the successful wherever they found them.

Prince Eugene of Savoy
The bottom line is that the old, pre-revolutionary system of assigning military leadership certainly had its flaws but it was not so bad as most people think and actually worked quite well for quite a long time. On the other hand, the push to make the military more egalitarian, while starting with a more rational push for meritocracy, has turned away from assigning rank based on merit and is increasingly about demonstrating “fairness” by actually being quite unfair in pushing for the military to be a perfect reflection of society. Only time will tell how this will work out but, as it stands today, the historical record has not shown any great level of improvement with this new mentality over the old system which produced the great captains of the world who subdued entire continents, conquered empires and changed the art of war for all time by their brilliant innovations.

(image at the top of the article is the British commander Sir Arthur Wellesley being presented to the Spanish general Don Gregorio Garcia de la Cuesta during the Peninsular War)


  1. I've been thinking a lot about this lately. If you go on YouTube and click on one of the first results of Napoleon, there are lots of comments bragging about Napoleon like his empire was the original Soviet Union, spreading "enlightened" ideals among backward monarchies who were terrified of being deposed and trying to "reverse" the enlightenment (favorite buzzword). I've literaly heard people say the sole reason we aren't living in an oppresive theocratic absolute monarchy, is due to Napoleon. I've also heard claims he improved living conditions of workers, which obviously just their familiarization fantasy.

    Does it fascinate you how an aristocrat and emperor became a Marxist icon? I wish a study could be done on this, but of course no university would allow it, they're run by the idiots who spread this pop history.

  2. One of the things that annoys me the most about militaries of republics is that they don't use the highest general and flag ranks anymore (i.e. field marshal, grand admiral, etc.) There are a few exceptions but not many. I guess republican governments don't want to give such high status to any officer because they are afraid of being overthrown.


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