Maurice of Nassau Kicked Off “The Military Revolution”
Maurice, Count of Nassau (1567 – 1625), became Prince of Orange and stadtholder of the Dutch Republic from 1585 onwards. During his years in office, he led his Protestant countrymen’s fight for freedom from Catholic Spain, and secured the Dutch Republic’s de facto independence. He changed warfare by implementing radical innovations in military strategy and tactics, laying the foundations for what came to be known as The Military Revolution.
Since childhood, Maurice had been fascinated by all things military, such as ballistics, engineering, and mathematics. A bookworm and history buff, he developed military theories that he was eager to put in practice. As soon as he was confirmed as Prince of Orange in 1585, at age eighteen, he proceeded to energetically implement his innovations.
He began by reorganizing the Dutch army, then led it in what came to be known as the Ten Glory Years in capturing vital fortresses and towns from the Spanish, to round out the borders of the Dutch Republic and make it more defensible. That solidified the Dutch cause, and established Maurice as his era’s greatest general. Many commanders who rose to prominence during the Thirty Years War and the English Civil War, learned their trade while serving under Maurice.
At the heart of Maurice’s reforms was an emphasis on drill, streamlining logistics, and simplifying battlefield tactics. Maurice was an avid student of Roman and Byzantine military history. He read about the role of rigorous training in the success of Rome’s legions, and drew lessons from classical authors such as Vegetius, Aelian, Frontinus, and Emperor Leo VI of Byzantium.
Maurice pioneered the decentralization of units. He made his infantry more maneuverable and flexible by splitting large Spanish style tercio regiments, of about 3000 men each, into smaller battalions of 580 men. He also simplified logistics by reducing his artillery to just 4 basic calibers. In 1599, Maurice went a step further and had the entire army of the Dutch Republic reequipped with muskets of the same caliber and size, greatly easing the lives of quartermasters.
The bedrock of Maurice’s reforms, however, was drill and discipline. He trained his men constantly, and introduced drills to reduce tasks, such as loading and discharging canons or firearms, to rote. The routine motions became operations that were, literally, done by the numbers. That enabled soldiers to function in the heat and chaos of battle, and perform their jobs by falling back on muscle memory from repetitive drilling. Maurice’s system of discipline and drill became the model for European armies for centuries to come.
Maurice’s Military Revolution had knock-on effects that went beyond the military. The new way of fighting relied on high levels of training, expertise, discipline, and organization. That could only be provided by professional, fulltime soldiers, who had to be maintained even in peacetime. It made them far more expensive than earlier armies, cobbled together from hastily recruited and hastily trained conscripts, who were discharged soon as the war was over.
Paying for the new standing armies required higher taxes, which in turn required an expansion in the authority and administrative machinery of governments. Gone were the days when fractious aristocrats could challenge the crown by raising armies from their retainers and peasants. Such ad hoc forces stood no chance against the central government’s professional armies. Only other governments could afford to raise, equip, and pay standing armies of similar quality.