What factors led to American success in the American War of Independence?

An essay by Birmingham War Studies graduate Rob Gillow.

American success in the War of Independence was primarily the result of the conflict escalating into a global struggle that the British did not want to fight.   The involvement of the French, Spanish and eventually the Dutch placed Britain in a vulnerable position from which both the politicians and the armed forces began to question the value of fighting in America. These doubts were increased when it became clear that Britain didn’t have the resources required to win in America whilst also protecting their other colonies and the home islands. This is in comparison to the American revolutionists whose commitment and will to fight was far greater than their enemies and itself was an important factor in American success. The resistance and dogged nature shown by the colonials and revolutionaries was reflected in their fighting style and capitalised on by good leadership. The American generals, aware of their deficiencies sought to wear down the British until America had established both allies and its own armed forces capable of victory. This victory can be seen as the British surrender of Yorktown on the 19th October 1781. Whilst it is still conceivable that Britain could have carried on fighting and even still won the war from this point the British had in fact given up. This is best expressed by the military theorist Clausewitz, who writes: “As soon, therefore, as the required outlay becomes so great that the political object is no longer equal in value, the object must be given up, and peace will be the result.” This essay will consider why Britain failed to subdue the revolution and why it didn’t commit enough to the conflict in North America, taking into account the global context of the war. However the role of America should not be overshadowed by the unwillingness of the British. The tactics and strategy employed by America as well as the excellent leadership demonstrated at times by both generals and politicians throughout the war played a vital role and ergo will also be considered.

Initially the American War of Independence was a confined and largely asymmetrical conflict. Britain possessed a more than adequate navy and highly trained armed forces. Furthermore Jeremy Black notes that “suppressing a rebellion within the dominions of the British Crown was not a novel problem for the British Armed Forces in the eighteenth century.” This highlights Britain’s experience in dealing with such matters which perhaps resulted in overconfidence when dealing with the conflict in America. The fighting itself started as a small scale conflict by European standards.

Yet Britain’s inability to crush the uprising or George Washington’s armies drew the attention of foreign powers, Britain appeared weak. Thus powers such as Bourbon France began to respond to the diplomatic advances of the American Congress and sent vital aid to America, such as guns and ammunition. They also began to consider the possibility of entering the conflict directly.  Following the defeat of the British at Saratoga the French stepped up their support of the Americans from smuggled aid to a fully signed treaty of alliance which was signed on the 6th of February 1778. Within the treaty was ‘Article 10’ Which stated: “The most Christian King and the United States, agree to invite or admit other Powers who may have received injuries from England to make common cause with them, and to accede to the present alliance, under such conditions as shall be freely agreed to and settled between all the Parties.” These injured parties included Spain and the Dutch who entered the conflict in June 1779 and December 1780 respectively.

This was disastrous for the British who had hoped for a quick and decisive victory, now due to foreign involvement they had to fully mobilise and faced the prospect of a long and costly war.  Furthermore the intervention of these powers and escalation of the war denied the British the naval supremacy they had long enjoyed and freely exploited in America. With a sizeable enemy navy now operating in the waters around America as well as commitments elsewhere the British navy could no longer stick to its trusted strategy of blockade and thus starve out the revolution. These ‘commitments elsewhere’ refer to the fact the Britain was now fighting in multiple theatres, conflict had arisen in the Caribbean, Africa, India and Europe. Even the Home islands themselves were threatened. Britain’s woes were further inflated by the lack of an ally on the continent. During the previous war Britain had Prussia as an ally who diverted and defeated large amounts of French resources, yet during this conflict Britain had no such luxury.  The Eastern European powers were focused upon themselves thus Britain had to fight the full force of France itself.

The full extent of the complications arisen from European involvement can be shown from the concerns of leading British politicians. General Amherst, who became Commander-in-Chief of the forces in April 1778, strongly advised pulling out of the war upon hearing of the Franco-American treaty. This idea was rejected as many felt abandoning the war would invite America to attack Canada and the West Indies, the consensus feeling that the West Indies in particular couldn’t afford to be lost.  Upon opposition to this idea Amherst instead insisted upon the king that “the colonial war was now a secondary consideration in a situation in which the primary concern had to be France.” As for the actual fighting in America the possibility of a decisive defeat of the main British Amy in the field was now feasible with French military intervention. This possibility came to realisation at Yorktown where the combined efforts of the American army and French navy resulted in the surrender of a British army. Following this defeat Britain sought terms however Benjamin Franklin noted of the British “That they were ready to treat of Peacebut intimated that if France should insist upon terms too humiliating to England, they could still continue the war, having yet great strength and many resources left.” This further highlights how the British concern was the French and not America, which it was now willing to relinquish.

As noted by Franklin the defeat at Yorktown did not necessarily mean the end of the war as Britain still had the resources to carry on fighting. K. Perry notes After 1782 Britain could have carried on the war having won back some form of naval superiority but the “political will to attempt it had gone.” Especially now the new administration of the Marquis of Rockingham that had replaced Lord North on the 27th March 1782 was ‘pro-independence’. However the reluctance to fight was not a result of Yorktown but had been present in Britain since the start of the outcome. Interestingly the conflict in America wasn’t the main concern for many. On the  6th December 1765 King George III stated “I am more and more grieved at the accounts from America where this spirit will end is not to be said; it is undoubtedly the most serious matter that ever came before Parliament it requires more deliberation, candour and temper then I fear it will meet with.” For many America was vital to British power and prosperity, this view was backed by the fact in 1772-3 America took roughly a quarter of all British exports. Yet for others it wasn’t, especially when compared to possession such as India. Notably after Massachusetts Assembly’s actions in 1768 the British cabinet met to discuss the matter but was more focused on the East India Bill.

This apprehension about the conflict in America is shown through Parliament’s constant refusal to send the required reinforcements to its generals in America, instead on the 21st March 1778 it ordered Clinton to send 5000 troops to attack St Lucia and 3000 to reinforce Florida. As well as not sending enough reinforcements Britain sent generals with orders to try and negotiate with the revolutionist. General Howe, who himself had great sympathy for the Americans, was instructed to treat with the Americans as well as destroy them. These paradoxical orders resulted in his reluctance to push hard on the Americans after the Long Island victory in hope of negotiating. This allowed Washington and his army to escape instead of a crushing victory which could have potentially ended the war.  Addressing parliament in 1779 to explain his actions Howe said “Would it not have had the effect of alienating the minds of the Americans from his Majesty’s government, rather than terrifying them into obedience.” Here in lies the main problem for Britain, even if they successfully put down the revolution they would still have to control a largely hostile population. Sir Charles Bunbury recognised this, calling for the war to be abandoned due to the high cost and “intractability of the war.” He recognised Britain was fighting an idea that couldn’t simply be put down by military strength. This is explained by Black who writes “The restoration of the colonies to royal government would be pointless if they required a substantial garrison and if embers of rebellion remained among a discontented population.” Ironically the only way to keep such a ‘substantial garrison’ in America would be to tax the colonies which was one of the main reason the war occurred in the first place, potentially creating an endless cycle of political unrest and conflict. It is because of this that Perry believed that “Britain had lost the colonies by 1775 and the war that followed was merely a painful way of learning that lesson.” Britain soon realised this and during negotiations agreed “The Allowing of American Independence on condition that England be put into the same Situation that she was left in by the Peace of 1763.”

The American will and determination for independence can therefore be seen as a major factor for American success in the war of independence. America had been witness to a “period of benign neglect” from the British following the seven years war and as such tension had grown. American suspicion about British intentions was fuelled by events such as the Boston massacre of 1770 and the introduction of the Stamp Act in 1765. The growing resentment of the Americans was seen by Sir John Wenthworth who was Governor of New Hampshire. Writing on the 2nd of November 1770 “although the violent effusions are and will be surpassed by navy and army – yet I verily think a far more dangerous spirit is thereby rooting in the minds of the people.” As events developed the British ministry was extremely surprised by the scale and spread of resistance they were faced with. Additionally the Colonials refused to be intimidated by British aggression and displays of military strength which had been hoped to scare the population and prevent the uprising from growing. Instead the unrest grew and on the 4th of July 1776 at Philadelphia the Continental Congress declared the colonies independent.

The importance of the Declaration of Independence as a factor for American success in the war has been greatly debated. To historians such as Robert Middlekauff it was a “glorious act”, a standard to fight under and for. This view is indeed shared by the American generals who witnessed an increase in volunteers and a vital boost to morale following it’s declaration despite crushing defeats. Washington had it read out to the troops preparing to fight at Long Island to boost morale and invigorate the troops. In contrast John Adams saw it more as a formal procedure and boldly felt “the revolution was complete, in the minds of the people, and the union of the colonies, before the war commenced in the skirmishes of Concord and Lexington on 14 April 1775.” This view, although very naïve of the military aspects highlights how the revolutionaries were determined to win the war at any cost. This dogged nature of the American fighters is best reflected by General Nathanael Greene whose campaign in the south featured numerous defeats in battle yet still ended up victorious. Of this campaign he said: “We fight, get beat, rise and fight again.”

This resilient nature featured throughout the war but was as much a product of British creation as American. Throughout the war British politicians and generals enraged the colonial population and ultimately fanned the fire of their own destruction. Following the declaration of Independence King George III passed the Intolerable act and made a speech which greatly infuriated the American revolutionists and scuppered any chance of negotiation to avoid further conflict.  Thomas Jefferson wrote of it how it “plainly proved a deliberate and systematically plan of reducing us to slavery.” Other examples include Burgoyne’s statement and threat to unleash the Indians on Northern America which ultimately rallied the dysfunctional army that opposed him in the north. His eventual defeat and the victory of the Trenton-Princeton campaign greatly boosted morale and proved a humiliation to Britain. These incidents’ consequences can be seen through America’s refusal to negotiate despite the numerous British victories. When asked to surrender by General Howe in July 1776 Benjamin Franklin replied “It is impossible we should think of submission to a government, that has with the most wanton barbarity and cruelty, burnt our defenceless towns in the midst of winter, excited the savages to massacre our farmers, and our slaves to murder their masters, and is even now bringing in foreign mercenaries to deluge our settlements with blood” The “foreign mercenaries” he refers to may well be the Hessian troops that were left to hold the Delaware River line over the winter of 1776. These troops greatly pillaged the land for food and supplies, ignoring the orders of British who still hoped to negotiate and thus didn’t ravage the land. The inability of the British to destroy the will of the enemy despite its numerous victories or to even bring America to the negotiating table can therefore be seen a vital factor in American success. Whilst a failing of the British, this is much more due to the will of the revolutionists and their desire for independence.

Ultimately the lack of political will and the spread of the conflict around the world resulted in a severe lack of supplies and reinforcement for the British. At the start of the conflict Britain was had the strongest navy and public finance system in the world. Yet America was 3000 miles away and was an extremely vast land that Britain lacked the army to conquer and control. Reinforcements were not forthcoming and such limitations were pressing matters for commanders,  General Howe was very aware he couldn’t afford to lose too many troops as they wouldn’t be replaced and hence took a cautious approach. The British army was small. In 1776 Britain had 40,522 men in North America, of which 13,482 were in Canada. Even then this inadequate number of troops was the biggest a British government had ever sent abroad. Surprisingly in October 1780, despite the need for reinforcements because of the escalation of the war and various setbacks the amount of troops in North America was smaller. They now numbered 15, 739 under Clinton in New York with a further 3838 in Canada. Meanwhile in Britain there were 34,977. This was the result of the war spreading to other theatres, some of which were deemed more important than America such as the West Indies where Britain’s naval commitment of ships of the line rose from 8% in July 1778 to 48% in April 1782.This shows how Britain’s strength did grow during the war. The British navy grew from 16,000 in 1775 to 107,000 in 1783. Yet the American campaign failed to receive the reinforcements it required whilst places such as Gibraltar received huge convoys of supplies which themselves required escorts during the course of a siege which lasted three and a half years.

This asks the question of why supplies and reinforcements weren’t sent to America if they were available. We’ve already established there was a lack of political will to fight but the reasons go beyond that. One main reason was that Britain hoped to mobilise the loyalist populations of America and use it as reinforcements to its army.  However Britain couldn’t offer the necessary protection to the loyalists and their land which they demanded in return for service. As well as the loyalists the British failed to gain Indian support to the same extent as they had in the Seven Years War. They also failed to take advantage of the slaves who made up 1/6th of population. Instead of using the local population Britain turned towards German auxiliaries which in 1778-9 made up 33% of the British strength in America. This was for more costly and added an unnecessary burden to an already overstretched budget, a cost which totalled £124 Million by the end of the war for the British.

Britain also thought it was fighting a losing battle on the supply and manpower front.  America was a wealthy society due to its plantation nature. This meant it could sustain a long war effort for a sufficient period and buy the vital equipment from its European allies. Furthermore there was a belief that America had a seemingly endless supply of reinforcements, as shown by Lieutenant James Hadden who wrote in May 1781 “we must conquer a people who get recruits within ten miles, while ours come three thousand.” However these beliefs were misguided as revolutionaries suffered almost as much as Britain in terms of supplies. Washington, like his British counterparts often called for reinforcements. He was promised 80,000 troops at the start of the war but had to wait for congress to recruit them in a fair and diplomatic manner. Furthermore in the winter of 1777-8 there was a crisis of transport and supply. Disaster was only narrowly avoided by the skill of Greene who in a new quartermaster general role sorted out logistical problems plaguing the armies. Despite these improvements Greene still observed of his army that “The regular force that is here is so naked and destitute of everything, that but little more than half of them are fit for any kind of duty.” Therefore we can see how resource problems plagued both sides in the conflict. If anything it proved a further reason for Britain to discontinue the war and the lack of will to carry on fighting it.

The fighting itself though must be considered when contemplating why America won the War of Independence. Throughout the war Britain won countless victories yet still lost overall. This idea of tactical defeat but strategic victory was vital in American success in the war. As discussed earlier Britain was unable to ever fully crush the continental army. According to Clausewitz the Destruction of an enemies force is vital for submission. Thus it was Washington’s belief that in this small war of attrition his “primary task was to keep his small army together through difficult times.” To this extent many saw Washington’s army as the revolution itself. This army was poor compared to its British enemies. This gap was slowly closed with the help of the Prussian Augustus von Steueben who developed new and simple drills to train the troops. Furthermore American culture played a factor as recognised by Charles Mellish MP who noted that there was “constant use of firelock from childhood.” Thus Washington had at his disposal a large amount of sharpshooters who wrecked havoc amongst the organised British.

The leadership demonstrated as well was vital for American success. The revolutionaries were lead by competent leaders. There was Washington who had learnt from his mistakes in the Seven Years War and was now more prudent and cautious because of it. Greene also was capable and possessed an “unrelenting belief in the ultimate victory of his cause.” The British commanders were left caught between trying to defeat their enemy and negotiate with them and as such never developed a decent strategy. Furthermore there was a lack of unity as generals and admirals all failed to work together. For example Burgoyne and Clinton had already set sail to attack from Canada by the time London learnt of Howe’s plan to attack Philadelphia by sea  and as a result neither armies were able to link up as planned and were defeated. The politicians as well were poor. Lord North was a good finance minister and parliamentary manager but not a war leader, his failings seemingly further exaggerated as he was following in the shadow of Pitt.

In conclusion it is clear there is a vast array of reasons as to why America was successful in the War of Independence. There is a line of argument that suggests the lack of will to fight from the British was the main reason although alternatively it was the American resolve for independence that forced Britain’s hand. Either way the development of the conflict from an isolated war into an international conflict was the key event and eventual factor that resulted in British defeat and therefore American victory. Yet it must be remembered that such a victory could not have been achieved without earlier success which greatly depended on the fine leadership and strategy of the revolutionary forces.


Black, J. War for America – The fight for Independence 1775-1783 (Stroud, 1991)

Clausewitz, C. On War (Wordsworth edn., London, 1997)

Dickinson, H. Britain and the American Revolution (London, 1998)

Middlekauff, R. The Glorious Cause (Oxford, 2005)

Parker, G. Cambridge Illustrated History of Warfare (Cambridge, 1995)

Perry, K.  British Politics and the American Revolution (London, 1990)

Roberts, A. The Art of War (London, 2009)

Franklin Papers:






Why War Studies? – An Interview with A Graduate

University of Birmingham Graduate Zoë Vince on War Studies at Birmingham.

– What are the main advantages of a degree in War Studies? How would you try to convince someone considering this option?

War Studies is an extremely diverse, engaging and highly flexible subject to study at undergraduate level, offering a range of thematic and detailed modular options throughout three years of study.  I would recommend that anyone interested in the subjects of politics, sociology and history and their respective links to either past or present conflicts should consider the merits of a War Studies qualification.  I would also urge those interested in such a path to thoroughly research the alternative War Studies programmes in other universities than Birmingham, such as King’s College London (KCL), because each programme, due to institutional tradition, preferences and teaching staff, offers a different focus on the study of warfare.

Studying for a War Studies degree facilitates the development of sought-after transferable skills, as traditionally found with subjects such as history and English.  More than this, however, War Studies offers the opportunity to study a multidisciplinary subject, demonstrating to prospective employers a willingness to engage with diverse material and develop a broad, not merely detailed, knowledge base.  War Studies is a ‘stand-out’ degree; unlike more common subjects, answering the question “what did/do you study?” with “War Studies” will always be greeted with genuine interest.  Finally, I would posit that War Studies is a genuinely enjoyable subject and is always interesting and challenging.

– What are the differences and similarities with a history degree?

The War Studies department at the University of Birmingham is based in the School of History and Cultures, whereas KCL’s is part of the School of Social Science and Public Policy, meaning that Birmingham’s programme is more, although not exclusively, centred on historical conflicts.  The modular course structure affords a significant degree of flexibility, which results in War Studies and history students attending many of the same classes, depending on individual interests.  Indeed, I have found that many history students, having been unaware of the opportunity to study War Studies, have come to prefer War Studies-led modules and even express regret that they chose single honours history.

The main difference between War Studies and history at Birmingham is the core War Studies modules, of which there is one in first and third year, and two in second year.  These modules are: War, Armed Forces and Society (1st year), Strategy and Operational Art, Rise of Modern Warfare (2nd year) and Writing the History of Warfare (3rd year).  These War Studies modules cover many multifaceted topics, concerning conflicts from the ancient world up to the present.

By way of assessment, students are permitted to choose their preferred essay questions, allowing independent research into a topic of interest.  For example, I chose such subjects as Thucydides’ continued influence amongst Anglo-American historians and political scientists, the reasons behind Frederick the Great’s operational successes, and a comparative study of Blitzkrieg and Deep Battle theory.  Students then build on this by choosing more specific, elective modules, which are also attended by history students; some, however, believe that going back into a mixed class can dilute the quality of debate, the War Studies students having had the benefit of specialist teaching.

In short, history and War Studies at Birmingham are closely linked, but War Studies students will fiercely argue that they are presented with the opportunity to become truly knowledgeable in a broad field, compared with the history student’s command of often a (relatively) short period.

 What general skills, not directly related to the subject but in demand in the labour market, are best developed by students in this area?

As previously mentioned, War Studies students develop all of the best traits of those reading Arts degrees.  Employers commonly require evidence of verbal and written communication skills, presentation skills and independent research skills.  Time management, organisational skills and analytical skills are equally sought after.  Reading for Arts degrees, which have notoriously short contact hours and a high level of independence, and which require a series of long and detailed assessments, therefore provides students with an excellent foundation of skills for later employment.

With regards to War Studies specifically, there is a focus on subjects related to decision making and leadership, and the exploration of organisational structures and operational successes which can easily be applied to the workplace, our graduates having more of a detailed grasp on logical processes and the requirements of a successful organisation.  This would translate well to employers, in comparison with a history degree which largely addresses themes and theories.

What do War Studies graduates usually do after their first degree?

A large proportion of War Studies graduates go on to further study.  Some choose to complete Law conversion courses, while a small number go on to train as teachers.  Many apply to read conflict related postgraduate degrees, either at Birmingham in areas such as the world wars or religious warfare, or at KCL, for example, where more contemporary,  policy based MAs and PhDs can be studied.

For those continuing directly into employment there are a wide variety of paths to consider. Public service is a popular choice, with graduates working for the Civil Service FastStream, the management training programme, or research and development organisations such as MoD trading fund Dstl. Some graduates prefer literary careers, working for think tanks or journals as writers or researchers, or for publishing and editing companies; some of our undergraduates have completed internships with a locally based military book publisher, for example.  Legal careers at lower levels also appeal to some, and additionally we have graduates in areas such as social media, demonstrating the diversity of the degree.

As might be expected, a large percentage of War Studies graduates go on to successful careers in the Armed Forces, particularly the Army, for which Birmingham has a highly commended Officer Training Corps. Generally speaking, academic and military careers are the most popular for our graduates.

 Do you expect the coming centenary of the First World War to prompt more interest among students in applying for such degrees?

I am not sure if school-leavers will be more likely to choose War Studies, as many of our undergraduates are attracted to the broader phenomenon of war, rather than a specific conflict.  There may well be a surge in interest for universities which offer courses related to the subject, but this has to be weighed up with the hugely rising cost of undergraduate degrees and the relative merits of Arts degrees compared to their scientific and technical counterparts.

I do think, however, that the centenary will have a positive impact on those pursuing further study, or returning to study, by taking advantage of Birmingham’s specialism in the First World War and our excellent teaching staff, and undertaking a postgraduate qualification, at master’s or doctoral level.  It must be noted though, that the public perception of the First World War, which is likely to be enhanced by the government’s programme for commemorating the centenary, is noticeably incompatible with the university’s programme of revisionist study.  It is for this reason that I think that Birmingham will continue to attract only those genuinely interested in the thorough, detailed study of the conflict.

 What are the main strengths of Birmingham University in this area?

The University of Birmingham contains the highly regarded Centre for First World War Studies, founded by Dr John Bourne, which has benefited from the teachings of Gary Sheffield, Jonathan Boff, Spencer Jones, Maj. Gen. David Zabecki (U.S. Army, ret.), Pierre Purseigle and the late Bob Bushaway. These scholars and others have contributed a huge amount of research into a range of aspects of the Great War, which have been largely characterised by the revisionist ‘side’ of the debate over ‘Lions led by Donkeys’.  Birmingham can certainly offer those interested in studying the First World War a thoroughly enjoyable and highly regarded qualification in the subject.  The current First World War Studies Master’s degree is a part time course, taught through monthly Saturday schools across two years, and is therefore greatly suited those fascinated by the subject but unable to commit to full time study.

 How does the War Studies Society at Birmingham contribute to students’ learning?

The War Studies Society, founded by undergraduate students in 2009, largely served as an undergraduate social group and mediating body between students and staff, concerning academic matters, until late 2011.  Since then, the Society has embraced postgraduate students and broadened its focus to include careers opportunities and community work.  I would say that the Society contributes to students’ learning by offering students from all levels opportunities to interact and discuss their work, encouraging debate and a reinforcement of material learned through formal academic study.  Some postgraduates in particular, having been out of academia for a sometimes significant number of years, find it useful to discuss their methods and techniques for assessment with younger students.  Fostering this community of likeminded individuals really aids the learning process and also builds friendships and networking links.

Could you tell us a bit about some of the events and activities which the Society organised last year?

Last year we organised a range of activities, including social events like day trips, notably to Bletchley Park, as well as meals, pub crawls and quizzes.  A particular success has been the monthly postgraduate dinner, which gives the master’s students an opportunity, after their monthly day school, to socialise with undergraduates and occasionally professors.

In late November 2012 the Society held its first fundraising event, which raised £320 for the Armed Forces’ wing at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Birmingham.  The event involved a First World War-themed football match, emulating the Christmas 1914 truce between British and German soldiers.  All participants dressed up and there was a fantastic raffle, talks by the Western Front Association, authentic Edwardian cakes and period music by a live brass band.

Another first was the careers event held in Spring 2012, which hosted presentations from Jaguar Land Rover armoured vehicles, the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl), Helion military publishers and RUSI journal, as well as speakers with information about Law conversions, War Studies postgraduate courses and Birmingham’s accredited employability course.

Which one was your favourite?

My favourite was definitely the careers event, which I presented myself to over forty undergraduates.  Given that there are only 75 War Studies undergraduates in total, and that a percentage already have a career in mind, this was a very good turn-out.  A common complaint within the department is that information about related careers is scarce, with any History and Cultures careers events focusing on the heritage sector and academic pathways.  The War Studies Society thus filled a gap in the market, so to speak, by holding this event, and provided much desired information to students who were unaware that War Studies can be applicable to so many diverse careers.  I was particularly pleased to see students talking with the representatives, some signing up for internships, and even the representatives themselves exchanging details.  I am hoping that this careers focus will be continued, as it is clearly sought after by undergraduates.

Interview by Alex Calvo, WWII MA student at Birmingham University

Revolutionary Thinking: the ‘Military Revolution’, ‘Military-Technical Revolution’ and ‘Revolution in Military Affairs’.

By Louis E.H. Reynolds and Zoë C. Vince

A note on historiographical bias

The historiography currently available to us regarding these topics has traditionally been written from a Western, particularly Anglo-US, perspective.  Because of this inherent bias, we would like to emphasise the predisposition of the historians we have used to highlight Anglo-US sources contributions over other arguably more influential sources, in this case particularly from the USSR.  This is due mostly to cultural and linguistic factors.

While it is unreasonable to expect historians to be fluent in all relevant languages to their subject area, and to have full cultural and social awareness or experience of these countries, it would be equally unreasonable to ignore the influence of these factors in the Anglicisation and Americanisation of the defence and military history books and articles we as students use most often, and thus the effect of this bias on our understanding of War Studies as a whole. Understanding the origins of the ‘Revolution in Military Affairs’ (RMA) as part of Soviet Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov’s ‘Military Technical Revolution’ (MTR), for example, is critical to any review of the modern misunderstandings and misapplications of the RMA concept.


All three theories have a range of often nebulous and irregular definitions. For the purpose of this article we have chosen to define the concepts as follows:

Military Revolution: A term to describe a period in history which has witnessed widespread and irreversible development in the areas of doctrine, technology, organisation and society, leading to decisive victories on the part of the army or country employing these new methods.  The adoption of such influential new techniques and technology is then emulated by all rivals and neighbours where practicable.

Military Technical Revolution: The precursor to the RMA, focusing specifically on the relationship between advancements in technology and success on the ‘battlefield’.  The RMA slightly expanded this concept to encapsulate the broader doctrinal and organisational changes occurring in the US army of the late twentieth century.

Revolution in Military Affairs: A current and ongoing ‘revolution’ in doctrine and organisation beginning in the 1970s and focusing on the role of technology, in particular information systems and air power.  Please note, however, that some historians have applied the RMA concept to ‘revolutions’ earlier in history.

Origins and development of the Military Revolution debate

The Military Revolution as a concept was originally defined by historian Michael Roberts in his 1955 inaugural lecture at Queen’s University of Belfast, entitled ‘Military Revolution 1560-1660’.  The term Military Revolution was used to explain the victories of Gustavus Adolphusof Sweden over the

Gustavus Adolphus

Imperial and Spanish armies during the Thirty Years War.  Roberts believed that Swedish military success in the early 17th century was due to organisational, tactical and doctrinal changes within the Swedish army.  Developments in this period included the introduction of superior drill (the counter-march) and the professionalisation of the troops and linear tactics rather than the widely used tercio, coupled with the necessary high proportion of NCOs and junior officers.  Reaching further back, the roots of these changes can be found with Maurice of Nassau and his late 16thcentury reforms of the Dutch armies. Maurice’s deep understanding of Roman military theory, particularly of the author

Maurice of Nassau

Aelian, and his application of drill, entrenchments, and other classically-inspired improvements led, Roberts argued, to a more proficient military machine.  The work of Gustavus Adolphus was therefore closely related to this, with the broader structural reforms of the army and formations complemented by technological advancements such as the use of three-pounder infantry support guns attached to modular infantry units, and tactical improvements like the employment of offensive shock action by his cavalry.

It is clear that the comprehensive and successfully applied changes to the existing military system were certainly impactive, one might say to the point of being revolutionary.  The developments introduced by Gustavus Adolphus were organisational, technological and doctrinal.  Gustavus Adolphus’ effective use of supply magazines, linear tactics and use of lighter artillery and firearms were steadily adopted by all the European powers.  The organisation of the Swedish army with its smaller unit sizes and higher numbers of NCOs and junior officers also became the standard model for Europe.  One area which is perhaps lacking from a ‘revolutionary’ perspective is the effect on society.  The widely accepted revolutions of history, the French and the Industrial Revolutions, had huge effects on the demographic, social reform and people as individuals.  Because we must avoid the study of war as a phenomenon in isolation, the social factor must not be ignored.  With the exception of the high casualty and mortality rate which was true of all combatants in the Thirty Years’ War, Gustavus Adolphus’ reforms had a negligible impact on the Swedish people.

Geoffrey Parker responded to Roberts’ argument by emphasising earlier developments which Roberts had neglected, such as the 15th century improvement of gunpowder artillery, and the critical subsequent development in the early 1500s of the trace italienne, in what was later characterised by

Clifford J. Rogers as an ‘artillery fortress revolution’. This development reversed the superiority of the offensive that had existed since the 1430s, and strategically the emphasis returned to the defensive, focusing on entrenchment on the battlefield and the use of the new fortifications which partially negated the effectiveness of early artillery. Certainly, this alternative earlier Military Revolution is also worthy of further study, as the social, economic and military changes it wrought on early modern Europe was similarly significant.   It must be stressed however, that as David Parrott pointed out, Parker was merely moving the revolution into his own specialism, namely 16th century warfare with particular respect to siege warfare.  Nevertheless, the Military Revolution debate was enhanced, with Roberts’ narrow view of European warfare added to by Parker’s acknowledgement of the importance of siege warfare and the primacy of the defence.

Clifford J. Rogers also redefined the Military Revolution, again with solid justification, and again by moving it further into the past into his own area of speciality, in this case the Hundred Years’ War.  For Rogers there were two ‘revolutions’, which he defined as the ‘Infantry Revolution’ and the ‘Artillery Revolution.’ According to him the ‘Infantry Revolution’ began with the adoption by the English under Edward III of a combined formation consisting of longbowmen and dismounted men-at-arms fighting in tactically defensive positions.  Other contributing developments included the Flemish, Swiss and Scottish use of pike in the 14th and 15th centuries, which reduced the previous dominance of the mounted feudal aristocracy on the battlefield.  Through these developments, Rogers argued that this Military Revolution began the process of transforming medieval, feudal military structures in Europe into more recognisably modern professional armies.

The second part of Rogers’ contribution to the debate begins in the 15thcentury, when technological developments in gunpowder weaponry between 1420 and 1430 led to the ‘Artillery Revolution’.  The result of this ‘revolution’ was the increased redundancy of traditional high walled towns and castles, as powerful artillery quickly became proficient at creating assailable breaches.  To give a comparative example, Henry V’s siege of Harfleur in 1415 lasted

Henry V at Harfleur

many months, whereas in 1449 when the French recaptured it, the sieges lasted a mere 17 days.  Understandably this effective use of artillery led to great social and economic changes as populations came under attack in their towns.  A further related development, Rogers argues, was the expansion and consolidation of the larger European states as they alone could afford the high price of siege warfare and the logistics involved.   Quickly the futility of static, castle based defence, due to the potency of artillery, became clear and the emphasis shifted to the offensive use of large armies on the battlefield.  Again, the financial burden of campaigning increased as only the large states with more sophisticated and centralised taxation systems could finance the large armies required.  A consequence of increased state centralisation was the absorption of weaker states by their larger neighbours, for example in this manner the Spanish drove the Moors from Spain, and the French re-conquered Normandy and the semi-independent region of Brittany.

Rogers’ argument is detailed and sensible, the consequences and importance of the early developments of infantry and artillery cannot be understated, and his description of the two parallel developments as ‘revolutions’ is understandable.  This earlier period witnessed broad changes in military conduct, as well as economic, social and political developments which had wide-reaching consequences.

But still the debate continued, with Jeremy Black further adding to the debate by highlighting the importance of the years 1660 to 1710 and overall expanding Roberts’ original period to 1550-1800.  Black argued that rather than in the early 17th century, the real structural and tactical changes in European armies occurred in the following hundred years, one of his examples being the military advancements made by Louis XIV alongside his political and structural centralisation.

The development of the Military Revolution debate has therefore resulted in a potential ‘revolutionary’ period of up to 500 years, from Rogers’ 14th century developments to those cited by Black, going right up to 1800.  Each historian has largely agreed with Roberts’ main principles of ‘revolution’, but rejected their narrow geographical and chronological application.  For the purpose of promoting their own areas of interest, each newcomer to the debate has loosely applied the arguments to alternative periods in history.  As a result, there remains a confused and divisive account of what actually constitutes a Military Revolution.

Origins and development of the ‘Revolution in Military Affairs’

In the late 1970s, low ranking Soviet officers began to argue that computers, space surveillance (satellites), long range missiles, communications systems

A typical 1970s US satellite

and information technology, as well as their integration into conventional forces, was changing the balance of power.  In other words the Soviet armies, and their doctrine and technology, were becoming obsolete when viewed in direct comparison with the US coordinated multi-arm forces with their superior communication and information systems.

This new understanding led to Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov (1917-1994) outlining in a series of papers and lectures what he described as a ‘Military Technical Revolution’ (MTR).  This MTR involved the ‘revolutionary’ synthesis of new technology, military systems and organisational and operational adaptation to create a new ‘way’ of waging war.  Due to the constraints of the declining Soviet economy and lack of political will to engage in another military-technological arms race with the West, the Soviet armed forces only implemented limited reforms in response to Ogarkov’s research.

The reaction to the MTR in the West was minimal, being largely dismissed as propaganda; however Andrew W. Marshall, Head of the US Department of Defense Office of Net Assessment and Strategic Planning, saw its merits and referred to the MTR in his analysis of the military balance between the US and the USSR.  He too, like Ogarkov, believed that change lay in sensors and information systems.

Due to the primarily technological nature of the MTR, it may be possible to apply it to previous examples of military-technological change, which range from the invention of the stirrup to that of the tank. The central idea of the MTR, being that technological innovation can drive military change, is a concept which has been familiar throughout history and because of this can be closely compared to the Military Revolution theory.

Marshall rebranded the MTR concept as the ‘Revolution in Military Affairs’, and developed its details. The development of the RMA concept by Marshall was followed closely by modern military organisations across the globe, not least the People’s Liberation Army of China, who “translated every word that Marshall wrote.”

This change in terminology was accompanied by little actual change in the concept, except for the expansion of the idea to incorporate more up-to-date technological innovations contemporary to Marshall, and to slightly change the direction of the concept specifically towards the future planning of the US military. Many academics use the terms MTR and RMA interchangeably, while others refer to an MTR as a generalised military-technological advance applicable to other periods in history, and in comparison view the RMA concept as being more focused on military-technological development from 1985 to the present day.

The historiography of the RMA debate has expanded greatly in recent years.  Having established and largely accepted the current information-technology RMA, historians are now attempting to project the concept back in time, and by doing so explain other instances of technological change leading organisational and doctrinal reform.  One such example is the applicationof the RMA idea to ‘Blitzkrieg’, particularly the Fall of France in 1940.  Unfortunately there are numerous problems with this.  Firstly it has been comprehensively proven that Germany did not possess vastly superior technology, despite isolated technological strengths.  In addition, ‘Blitzkrieg’ was not a formal doctrine, and as a result the direct effects of technological advancement cannot be proven.  The Fall of France was to a large extent aided

The Fall of France 1940

by French incompetence and mistakes, and additionally any analysis of Blitzkrieg is incomplete without reference to the Eastern Front, where it ultimately failed due to a variety of logistical, tactical and strategic reasons.  It is clear that this approach is flawed.

Taking examples from history and by doing so applying the lessons of past wars to modern conflicts is a core part of contemporary academic analysis.  However, projecting modern concepts and metaphysical structures onto past events risks both historical ‘cherry picking’ in the style of Mahan, as well as often cripplingly subjective analysis, which distorts historical truth.

Can these terms really be applied? 

Due to the historian’s penchant for applying theories and definitions to alternative periods in history, it is possible to find terms like the ‘Revolution in Military Affairs’ or the Military Revolution appearing in studies ranging throughout the whole spectrum of military history, often interchangeably.  To a certain extent, although the debate surrounding the Military Revolution is by no means over, this term has been worn-out, over used and over applied.  The RMA however is only just being properly explored, and applied to other periods of great military change.  Historians have projected the Revolution in Military Affairs back to German ‘Blitzkrieg’ and the First World War, for example.  These studies promote analysis and evaluation of the RMA when applied to other areas, but take the original concept completely out of context.

The Military Revolution debate is centred on which period of history it may or may not be applied to.  As a result of numerous historians’ studies and debates, academics in the field of warfare are presented with many different sides of the same argument; an argument which is inherently flawed.  By extending and editing the original framework to fit their own areas of interest, the key historians engaged in this debate have negated any plausibility attached to the ‘revolutionary’ label, not least through the advocacy of a revolution lasting more than one hundred years, a concept proposed by more than one academic.  The RMA, being ‘younger’, has yet to be fully understood and applied in this way.

The boundaries between the different terms are largely indistinct and by removing the original limitations of time and space, the RMA being specifically aimed at the 1980s onward, the resulting ‘revolution’, encapsulating technology, doctrine and organisation would overlap heavily with the Military Revolution.

It is also important to remember provenance when assessing any of these terms.  The Military Revolution was conceived by an early modern historian 400 years after the events, while the MTR and RMA concepts were created by contemporaneous military thinkers to explain developments in the modern world.  Understanding the geneses of these concepts therefore helps to differentiate between the two.

Consequently, the question is not necessarily can these terms be applied, but is perhaps ‘should they be applied?’.  The Military Revolution concept lends itself to a range of periods in history, but has as a result been over applied, stretched and warped.  The RMA was developed from the original MTR idea to address advancements in technology, and their effects on the military, specifically in the US in the 70s, 80s and later decades.  It is thus by definition a concept that can only be applied to the late 20th and early 21st centuries, and because of this it is clearly inappropriate to superimpose the RMA onto any other period in time.

Punctuated Equilibrium Evolution Theory

Clifford J. Rogers, perhaps aware that his paper on the multiple military revolutions of the Hundred Years’ War was stretching Roberts’ already crumbling conceptual framework to breaking point, proposed the adoption in military history of a biological term first used in the 1970s in reference to evolutionary biology, ‘Punctuated Equilibrium Evolution’. Rogers saw this idea as a series of small, periodic bursts of change in military history, punctuated by relative stability.  This translates as, for example, an important new technological development, followed by relative inaction while the technology delivers an impact and then the widespread adoption of the technology and acceptance of the social, economic and political consequences related to it.

This theory goes further than the Military Revolution debate to explain why Europe experienced continuous ‘revolutions’ throughout a period of over 500 years.  By viewing the developments as short bursts of activity in an otherwise stagnant and reactionary military environment, it is possible to identify important technological, doctrinal, organisational and social changes without having to impose the ‘revolution’ label on them.  This idea therefore has much to offer, but for it to be any more relevant, and in order to emerge from beneath the Military Revolution theory it requires tighter definition and further study.

Summary and Conclusion

An MTR is an RMA is not quite a Military Revolution.  A Military Revolution implies that the military-technical development (MTR/RMA) is accompanied by broader social, economic, political or cultural change.  This is as close to a qualitative definition as one can expose without breaking the concepts at their core.

Indeed, there is clearly no quantitative measurement.  For example, while Clifford J. Rogers speculated that perhaps a revolution “lasts for no more than one lifespan”, Jeremy Black’s revolution lasts for over 200 years, and Roberts a full 100 years.  The Military Revolutions of Rogers, Black, Roberts and Parker (to name but a few examples) are all well argued, and all fit the general definition of a Military Revolution.  Yet they extend from 1302 with the genesis of Rogers’ ‘Infantry Revolution’ to around 1430 with the ‘Artillery Revolution’, then 1500 and the beginning of trace italienne, followed by the 1630s and Gustavus Adolphus’ application of linear tactics, to the late 17th century and the inception of the bayonet, being drawn by Black all the way to 1800 in his work ‘A Military Revolution? Military Change and European Society 1550-1800’.  Developments such as these, with similar characteristics and occurring over long periods of time, appeared with such frequency during the last millennium that surely they cannot be regarded as revolutionary at all.

A lack of capacity for any real quantitative measurement is not on its own a fatal blow to the Military Revolution concept, but in combination with the lack of consistency in its application by various academics and the sheer volume of time periods referred to as military revolutions, it must be concluded that the term clearly has no value.

The main problem with the RMA in comparison is not that it has been over-applied, although restraint must now be used to prevent this happening, but that it has not been properly defined.  The Revolution in Military Affairs is a modern concept for the modern military, and as such must not be projected back in time to historical periods more suited to alternative explanations.  In addition to this, an ‘end’ to the current RMA must be found.  This RMA began in the 1970s with the increasing military use of information systems and smart technology, continuing through the development and increasingly widespread use of the internet, up to the present day.  Without clear definition this RMA could therefore continue infinitely, if one considers the rate of technological development we are now experiencing.  The RMA concept as a result of this runs the risk of becoming, like the Military Revolution, too broad to succeed as a workable term.

We would argue that while ‘military affairs’ have been irreversibly transformed by post-1970 technological developments, this transformation cannot be

New technology has changed the conduct and organisation of modern armed forces

viewed as a revolution.  Without knowing the conclusion to the current RMA, it is impossible to know whether the US and the West are experiencing a revolutionary or evolutionary process.  Because of this, we would direct interested parties to the Punctuated Equilibrium Evolution Theory, which has many merits and may be applied successfully to much of history due to having a more sensible and all-encompassing approach.  Punctuated Equilibrium Evolution however does require more study and application to historical subjects before it may be totally adopted by historians.

The military historian Cyril Falls once noted that people throughout history have had a tendency to view their own period of time as revolutionary in a way that separates them conceptually from the past, a subjective flaw we perhaps still suffer from. We would argue that this is the same for military historians and analysts, with a tendency for each to see their own period of study as the most significant. It is not coincidental that each of the historians discussed in this article have found their own specialism the most noteworthy period in military history.

It is perhaps both the linear academic view of history, a product of the Enlightenment, and our own psychological requirements as pattern seeking mammals that motivate us to attempt to draw a straight line through history, and to view the entire subcategory of military history on the sliding scale of a single concept, be it ‘Punctuated Equilibrium Evolution’, ‘RMA’, ‘MTR’ or ‘Military Revolution’. Similarly, perhaps none of these approaches is appropriate. What is clear is that the Military Revolution, RMA and MTR concepts are so loosely defined, subjective, over applied and misunderstood that if they originally provided analytical value, they no longer do so.

The authors of this article can be contacted via Twitter at: @L_EH_Reynolds and @zcvince