Book Review: The First Total War

The First Total War by David A. Bell, is a history of the conception of warfare as it changed between the late 1600s and the mid-1800s, and gives us a look into our own conception of warfare today.

This is not a straight military history, in that it does not detail the structure or progress of individual battles. Instead, it is an examination of the ways that the aristocratic armies of the 17th century gave way to the citizen armies of the 18th century, and how that changed the way armies fight. The author’s thesis is that wars in the 1600s were fought for limited goals and with limited methodologies; but armies after the French Revolution fought with a hitherto-unimagined savagery, and without limitations on either goals or means. Bell points out that pre-Revolutionary warfare is almost incomprehensible to a modern audience, and that post-Revolutionary warfare is so familiar to us that we cannot imagine wars being fought another way. Indeed, it is the nature of his book that the first third-to-half — which details the pre-REvolutionary methodologies of war — is dusty-dry, while the second half of the book, detailing the new citizen’s-army strategies of France and Prussia, is utterly gripping.

The pre-Revolutionary model of warfare, of course, is an aristocratic officer corps leading a small army composed partly of conscripted wretches and partly of highly-trained, expensive mercenaries. This force is utterly loyal to the king, and its officers are dandies and fops who have the ability to move easily between court, boudoir and battlefield. Duty, loyalty, and courage under fire are their watchwords; they cannot imagine doing anything else. They profess to be thrilled by the sound of artillery fire; they are skilled dancers and seducers; and they engage the enemy with bravery and with a complete lack of stupidity — which seem completely at odds to the modern reader.

Yet the aristocratic officer can assume, with a fair degree of certainty in pre-Revolutionary Europe, that his opponents on the other side of the battlefield will act within a particular code of conduct. Towns and fortresses will not be defended to the death; instead, sieges will continue until the besiegers have effected a breach in the wall of a certain size. Then the defenders will give up the town, and an orderly retreat of the (trained and well-paid) garrison will ensue after courtly greetings between the commanding officers. Civilian populations will (usually) be respected. Battles will be small, usually involving fewer than 10,000 men on all sides.

At the start of the French Revolution, though, the aristocratic officer corps found these values challenged. On the one hand, the Enlightenment ideals of peace and relative pacifism came to the fore. On the other, suspicion of Royalist plots weakened the willingness of the new government to support Royal control of the army. If the army was not to obey the king, who would it obey… a strong executive, or a council of the National Assembly, or someone or something else? And on the third hand (could the debate even have a third hand?), what was the army to make of this pledge of universal peace from the delegates to the National Assembly?

The delegates themselves were swept up in the alleged return to classical models of government, and so believed that there was a need for classical models of warfare. Aristocratic generals received vast levies of conscripted peasants trained and equipped with the pike — a weapon and a formation about as suited to the 18th century battlefields of Europe as the Greek phalanx is today. What were they to do with these almost-utterly-useless troops?

The answer came when Austria invaded France with the intention of saving the French royal family. The Austrian general fought according to the old aristocratic rules, and gave up the field when the cautious rules of traditional warfare said he should. The French generals, lacking gunpowder and muskets and sufficient artillery, simply flung their French peasant “citizen levies” into the fight, front and center, until the relatively small Austrian army was utterly overwhelmed by sheer numbers.

And that’s when things began to come apart. French armies had already been on the winning side of this kind of war, in America when the colonials won independence from Britain. There, aristocratic generals had been outmaneuvered by citizen soldiers led by citizen officers. It had taken years, but the colonials had won. Now the French National Assembly essentially confirmed the citizen levy model by abolishing the aristocratic officer corps, and establishing a national conscription to raise troops. The first target was a Royalist army assembling on the German side of the border. In response to a force of 20,000 aristocrats, the revolutionaries levied 200,000 troops.

In addition, the National Assembly also authorized a new form of warfare, that they — and we — call “Total War”. The new military doctrine called for the total extermination of the enemy, whether it was the British or the Prussians or the Austrians or the Italians. Political officers now accompanied each general and other commanding officer, and the risks for failing the Republic were high: 82 generals lost their heads to the guillotine in an 18-month period between 1793 and 1795. Fighting by the old standards of aristocratic warfare tended to cost an officer not only command, but blood. An aristocratic German who sent out a messenger offering to surrender his fortified town in exchange for the right to march his force out was given a blunt answer, in the form of his messenger — returned in four separate boxes. Nor was this style of violence reserved for France’s external enemies. When a guerrilla force arose in the Vendée region of France, the National Army piled atrocity on top of atrocity in an effort to stamp out the Royalists. The Royalists responded with vicious retaliation. A Final Solution-like remedy was eventually proposed and adopted: the National Army marched through the rebellious region of the Vendée in a criss-crossing grid pattern, killing and raping everyone in their path, and burning every house, farm and field along the way. The goal was to ruin the country utterly and prevent the Royalists from finding safe haven anywhere.

The book concludes with a discussion of the adoption and refinement of these techniques by Napoleon, who raised total war to an art form, but then suffered the difficulty of having to produce success after success on the battlefield in order to maintain control over his civilian administration. His difficulties maintaining control — in Spain, in southern Italy, in France itself — demonstrate the essential problems of this new style of warfare. Even he could not guarantee the steady supply of troops and materiel, and he could not utterly suppress the guerrilla operations that arose spontaneously in the wake of his armies.

The historian’s advantage is that these new citizen armies are no longer made up of the poorest wretches and the most highly-advanced and wealthy — but ideologically hide-bound — strata of society. Before, the ‘ordinary soldier’ did not exist; you could not read the diary of a soldier in the Thirty YEars’ War because the ordinary grunt could neither read nor write, and would be unlikely to set down his thoughts about the state of war. The aristocrat could talk about his experience in letters and poetry, but it was expected to conform to aristocratic standards of courtliness and chivalrous awareness. The Aristocrat was constrained by the mores of the time from saying anything more or less than exactly what he was supposed to say or write.

By contrast, the citizen soldiers of Napoleon’s army complain about bad food and worse sleeping arrangements. They write about camp whores and camp discipline, their fear of being wounded, their savagery toward the enemy. Maps and dispatches, mass-produced on the printing press, allowed heroes of the revolution to be elevated in the public’s eyes, and allowed the home front to comment and respond to military events for the first time. The bureaucratic machinery of the conscription brought a host of new information into the historian’s view, more than just the Catholic birth, baptism, marriage and burial records available before. In essence, the world of battle appeared in writing for the first time ever.

The book’s weakness is that it lacks any sort of broad overview of the events between 1670 and 1850, other than the narrative of the changing psychology and methodology of war. If you know your history, great. If you don’t, this is not the book for you. You may find your interest in the period piqued by parts of this book, but it’s not a good source of information if you haven’t studied the French Revolution or the Napoleonic Wars at all. All in all a good read: scholarly, but not too dry.

Stars: 4 out of 5.

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  1. It’s not a little narrow. It’s a lot narrow. There’s nothing about Eastern warfare or dark ages or any of that. It’s solely about pre French Revolution and post-. That’s it.

  2. It seems a little…narrow. Does he describe conventions of war in ancient/dark-age periods? Does he contrast it with war in the East? It seems to me that this aristocratic model with it’s rules and conventions was something that was a product of place and time and not a wide-ranging pattern.


  3. It seems a little…narrow. Does he describe conventions of war in ancient/dark-age periods? Does he contrast it with war in the East? It seems to me that this aristocratic model with it’s rules and conventions was something that was a product of place and time and not a wide-ranging pattern.


    • It’s not a little narrow. It’s a lot narrow. There’s nothing about Eastern warfare or dark ages or any of that. It’s solely about pre French Revolution and post-. That’s it.

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