Warhorse Simulations home page WARHORSE

ACTS | Empire | Epic of the Peloponnesian War | Free Stuff | Friends

Other historical book reviews and research papers are also available on our site.

Kurt Kuhlmann


HST 352.01


Review:                  The Military Revolution.  Military Innovation and the Rise of the West, 1500-1800, by Geoffrey Parker (Cambridge University Press, 1988).


Geoffrey Parker's The Military Revolution falls within a genre of military history which seeks to explain the European success in establishing colonial empires over much of the world beginning in the 16th century.  Unlike two previous attempts on this subject, William McNeill's The Pursuit of Power and Michael Howard's War in European History, Parker takes a much more focused approach.  Rather than seeking to explain the reasons for European expansion (as McNeill did), and without going into the interaction between war and society (as Howard did), Parker chooses to concentrate on one question: "Just how did the West, initially so small and so deficient in most natural resources, become able to compensate for what it lacked through superior military and naval power?"[1]  He also limits his time frame to examining "the principle means by which the West acquired that first 35 per cent [of the world's land surface] between 1500 and 1800."[2]

Parker, currently a professor of history at University of Illinois, was educated in Britain, and has written extensively on 16th and 17th century European warfare.  He takes his concept of the "military revolution" directly from his mentor, Michael Roberts, which encompasses four critical changes in the art of war: tactics, army size, strategy and impact.  Parker believes that these changes gave Europeans the military superiority which allowed them to defeat and conquer native peoples and states from the Americas to Indonesia.

Parker's argument proceeds on two levels.  His first three chapters are mostly concerned with showing that this military revolution in fact took place.  He examines the development and spread of the trace italienne, which "created a strategic problem to which there was no easy solution."


A heavily defended fortress or town, sheltering perhaps 10,000 men and supported by lesser strongholds in the vicinity was far too dangerous to be left in the wake of an advancing army: it had to be taken, whatever the cost.  And yet there was no short-cut to capture, however powerful the besieging army might be.  This simple paradox rendered battles more or less irrelevant in all areas where the new fortifications were built . . .[3]

He also looks at the changes in field tactics which led to armies composed of thin lines of musketeers firing in volleys, supported by mobile field artillery.  These two changes led in turn to a dramatic increase in the size of armies.  In the second chapter, Parker then examines the means by which these huge new armies were raised, financed and supplied.

Parker turns to naval warfare in his third chapter, and here he begins to add to Roberts's basic concept of the military revolution.  Parker sees a similiar revolution taking place at sea, with the advent of naval artillery bringing about a revolution in ship design and naval tactics.  By a process of fits and starts, the galley was eventually replaced by the frigate armed with ship-killing artillery, and line-ahead formations by ships firing multiple broadsides became the standard tactics.  Parker's argument here has some significant holes.  He shows that the Portuguese were using line-ahead tactics as early as 1500, and makes a strong case that the Spanish Armada was unable to use these tactics in 1588 because their two-wheeled gun carriages did not allow the guns to be easily reloaded during battle, but he never explains the discrepancy between these two statements.  Another weak spot is Parker's assertion that the "critical element" in the creation of the first "high-seas fleet capable of operating at long-range, on a permanent basis, as an ocean-going force" by the English was the "change in ship design, for only frigates could operate effectively for long periods at long range."[4]  Nowhere does he adequately explain this assertion, which the establishment of empires by fleets of Portuguese and Spanish galleons would seem to belie.

Parker finishes up with an examination of the results of the military revolution applied overseas.  He does an excellent job, for the most part, in showing how the new military techniques gave the Europeans victory, often against incredible odds, and also how the military revolution failed to make an impact on the states of East Asia.  The European techniques of fortification, for example, were usually proof against even the most determined sieges, but Chinese and Japanese fortifications were as strong or even stronger.  Also, many of the native states failed to adapt to Western military techniques due to incompatible cultural traditions -- for instance, in war which had the capture of slaves as its object, firearms were useless.  Here again, Parker seems to gloss over things which he cannot explain.  His non-explanation of the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs and Incas is especially notable: "Further south, the European colonists triumphed more rapidly."[5]

The greatest strength of The Military Revolution is Parker's conscious attempt to reduce the 'Eurocentric' view of world history.  He reminds us that the world was not standing still until the Europeans arrived, and that each area of the world had its own distinctive history and traditions which helped determine the success of failure of European conquest.  Although on a few points Parker seems to be standing on thin air, overall the book is just the opposite: well-supported and well-documented.  The over 60 pages of notes (to a 154 page book) are a mine of bibliographic sources, which are helpfully indexed following the notes.  A final note of praise must go to Parker's outstanding use of illustrations.  Rather than just being thrown in as an afterthought, Parker incorporates them into his text to help 'illustrate' various points.  The Military Revolution is a coherent, tightly focused explanation of the military means which led to the "rise of the West," and is equally valuable to the student or the scholar.

[1]  p. 4.

[2]  p. 5.

[3]  p. 16.

[4]  pp. 101-102.

[5]  p. 119.

Copyright © 1998 Warhorse Simulations