Thursday, January 10, 2013

Bayonets for Hire: Mercenaries at War 1550-1789, by William Urban

As I was perusing a local Half Price Books, I came across this text written by William Urban, a professor of history at Monmouth College in Chicago, Illinois. Having used some of Urban's earlier research in one of my own undergraduate papers I thought this would be a very interesting book to read and I was looking forward to an analysis of the developments in military technology between the end of the Renaissance and into the Enlightenment era, with the gradual shift from feudal levies to professional standing armies. However, I ended up dissatisfied with this book, beyond my misconceptions of its content matter.

I would like to begin by stating that I had some initial misconceptions about how this book would be executed however this is not why I am disappointed in Bayonets for Hire. I went into the book expecting it to be a sort of big-picture analysis of the development of military technology, organization, and ideology that happened during the time period the book covers. This period is especially critical for the study of mercenaries because it begins with the end of rulers depending upon their feudal levies of knights and armed peasants for military needs and beginning to use professional soldiers such as the landsknechte. Eventually rulers would rely on standing armies of full-time professional soldiers with an emphasis on drill and discipline, however this would be replaced in Europe with the citizen-soldier of Revolutionary France and the expansion of the military ideology of universal conscription. What this book ended up being, however, was an in-depth focus on the various wars that occurred during this time period, such as the Great Northern War, the War of Spanish Succession, the War of Austrian Succession, and the Seven Years War. It was still an informative history, but didn't bring much focus on the large-picture developments throughout the two centuries I was hoping to read about.

In addition, a significant part of the focus of Bayonets for Hire is what Urban calls the mercenary officers, expatriate men who had experience as officers in a variety of countries and would float from one army to another for employment. Urban goes to great detail providing the biographies of a number of these officers, however I ended up not enjoying those parts. I will admit that as a historian I tend to emphasize the big picture and do not care for biographical works. However, that is my own personal preferences as a historian and should not be taken as points against this book.

As for specific problems I had with this book, there were a few that are legitimate concerns beyond my just not liking Urban's choice in focus. The first problem, and this is a problem that is extremely common in the history books more geared toward popular audiences, is that Bayonets for Hire is not footnoted in any manner whatsoever. While this may seem like merely the concern of a historian, an exhaustive list of footnotes citing where an author is getting his information, whether primary or secondary sources, is absolutely vital for a well-researched history book. While Urban provides some footnotes with an author and their text with an argument he is addressing, the majority of his footnotes are asides written by Urban and while humorous and informative, are not the type of footnotes needed in a sound history text. This may just be my demands to meet standards I was trained to follow, but I think it is absolutely vital.

Another problem I noticed within Urban's text is that he tends to rely on national stereotypes and anecdotes for his research. Specifically, at several points in Bayonets for Hire, Urban states that the troops of Brandenburg-Prussia were the best available within the Holy Roman Empire. While my colleague Carvan will be the first to point out I will defend Prussia to the best of my ability, I am forced to admit that Urban provides no facts for these statements of excellence. While Brandenburg-Prussia developed a reputation as a military power over time, that reputation had not developed in the 1600's. If Urban was to make these claims he really would have to support it with hard evidence, rather than just relying on assumptions. In the cases of Sweden and Saxony, which Urban also states were excellent troops for the time, he points out that both were well-equipped, well-paid, well-organized, and benefited from excellent leadership, making the armies of those nations rightly feared by enemy powers. Reputation helps in many respects, but you've got to have something to back it up as well. And this is not the only example of the use of national stereotypes. At a couple of points in the book Urban mentions the tendency of landsknechte (a type of German mercenary) to indulge in heavy drinking and usually adds a comment along the lines of, "Oh, those Germans!" Putting aside the fact that everyone, including children, drank alcohol because of unsafe water supplies, it would be safer to assume that mercenaries drank a lot based on personality rather than any nationality. It takes a certain kind of personality to decide rape, murder, and looting is an appropriate profession and I would assume it's not much of a stretch to conclude that sort of personality would indulge in binge drinking as well. Much later Urban also mentions one of France's Irish brigades which was found stone cold sober while the rest of the army was nursing a massive hangover. Urban makes a quip that perhaps the Irish had depleted their alcohol supply well before the rest of the army and were not sober by choice. I find this aside to be in very poor taste and designed more to get a chuckle rather than having any historical merit.

In regards to anecdotal evidence, there were many uses by Urban of events that happened to specific people to provide a slice of what life was like for mercenaries and their commanders during these time periods. The problem with anecdotal evidence is that it is in no way indicative of how things normally are, and anecdotes survive largely because they are unusual examples. In researching history, anecdotes are fun and interesting, but should never be assumed to be representative of the whole.

Overall, there are some problems with Bayonets for Hire, and I would not recommend it for my readers. While providing some detailed information on specific people active between 1500-1789 and a general overview of the wars of this period, at best it is a jumping off point to other research. At worst, it relies too heavily on assumptions and anecdotes without always presenting the hard research backing up its thesis. I must regretfully recommend everyone pass this book by and hopefully I can find you a better book about this particular subject matter.

- Kalpar

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