According to historians Williamson Murray and Macgregor Knox in their writings on World War I, technology has made war “exponentially more complex. ” As scientific developments and weapons systems improve, warfare demands “fresh thought and ever-greater tactical, technical, and logistical expertise” (dynamics, p 176-77). In other words, improvements in technology lie at the heart of a changing nature of warfare.
In the period between 1000 and 1600 AD, three groups of technological improvements, above all, dictated the changing face of warfare: first, the improvement and increasing complexity of the offensive weapons themselves, as shown through the longbow; second, the change in defensive strategies and idea technology, seen through changes in defensive fortifications; and third, the indirect effects on war caused by technological improvements unrelated to war in their immediate nature, exemplified by the invention of the printing press.
There are indeed many other examples of technological changes that fit within these broad categories. But for the various time periods in which these three examples are most significant-the longbow, defensive fortification, and the printing press-each shows its distinct and vital role in changing warfare, all in the backdrop of the three separate categories of technological advancements to which each belongs. Among the most significant technological advancements in offensive weapons was the invention and increasing use of the longbow.
Developed by the British in the late 13th century, the longbow would prove to be an invaluable technological asset throughout the Hundred Years War between Britain and France. “[The longbow] bridged the gap between the supremacy of feudal cavalry and the beginning of modern warfare…. [The weapon] gave them a decided advantage over a variety of opponents until well into the sixteenth century” (dawn of modern warfare, p 9). Until the increasingly prevalent use of gunpowder centuries later, the longbow continued to be hugely valuable.
The idea behind the longbow originated from the already widely used crossbow, but the longbow would prove to be significantly more efficient. Larger and more powerful than the crossbow, the longbow was more accurate and over a far greater distance; it was extremely accurate at the tournament length of 220 yards, and could be launched twice that distance. In addition, three arrows could be fired with a longbow for every single arrow fired by a crossbow. The only major drawback of the longbow was that it required a very high amount of skill to perfect, which made intensive training essential.
This included rigorously strengthening one’s shooting arm until the bow could be effectively handled. It has been estimated that the skill took approximately six years to master. But for its ultimate effect on warfare, the high amount of training proved well worth it. In the early battles of the Hundred Years War, the longbow gave the British a distinct advantage despite being consistently outnumbered by the French. At the Battle of Crecy in 1346, Edward III and the British aligned long lines of men-at-arms approximately 6-8 rows deep. On the flanks, and interspersed between these men stood the archers.
Infantrymen with spears stood behind them. King Phillip and the French, secure in their 2 or 3 to 1 ratio, began the battle by attacking with 6,000 crossbowmen. The initial attack did little damage to the British. The British responded with the archers, who flung their arrows deep into the French ranks. The archers did a huge amount of damage to the French lines. In addition, the high flying barrage of arrows caused a confusion that essentially broke up the French ranks, with retreating horsemen, wounded horses, and fleeing crossbowmen.
That day, the English archers brought a tremendous advantage to their side,” wrote Frenchman and Hundred Years War chronicler Jean Froissart. “The archers certainly succeeded in one great achievement, for it was entirely by their fire at the beginning that the [crossbowmen]… were turned back” (Chaliand, p 506). Even from the French side, it was clear that the initial longbow attack easily put the battle in the hands of the British. Ten year later, at the battle of Poiters, a similar trend occurred.
After suffering the effects of the magnitude and power of the British longbows, the French were left unable to effectively respond. “The importance of the longbow in the march of technology is the contribution of unrivaled firepower-in range, accuracy, and volume-that the weapon offered to a combined force of cavalry and infantry. As long as the French, or, for that matter, any other army, attempted to challenge an English army built around the longbow without using a weapon that could equal the firepower of that weapon, the English continued to enjoy success on the battlefield. (12)
The archers served as the key difference between the armies, and until the French brought in equally powerful forms of technology, they were essentially defenseless. The difference between armies by their weapons alone, regardless of numbers, was often enough to determine the outcome of the battle. As weapons remained a key aspect of technology and its affect on war, other types of technology would serve equally valuable. It is often thought that warfare from 1000 to 1600 AD tended to be based primarily in the battlefield. But in fact, these were far outnumbered by battles of siege warfare.
The sites of the sieges were primarily castles, and had to be fortified strategically as defensive strongholds. The changing architecture at the sites of the sieges represents the second form of the impact of technology on warfare, the concept of strategic, and in this case primarily defensive, technology. The fortification of castles and fortresses in preparation for siege warfare was the most important strategic technology in the most common form of warfare-the siege. While it is true that siege fortification, like the longbow, is a physically constructed technology of warfare, it should in fact be put in a separate category.
Siege fortifications should be considered closer to a strategic technology, based on ideas and tactics, and not a technological weapon. It should be put in the same category as, for instance, battlefield formations-both are tactical strategies of war based on ideas. As technology and weapons improved, siege warfare improved. In response to this, important castles and fortresses began to enhance their defenses. It was essentially an arms race, competing for which technology would prove superior-the offensive siege or the defensive fortification.
Beginning even before 1000 AD, the fortifications were built to be increasingly more stable and able to defend themselves against new forms of the opposition’s technology. Two common fortification setups were the ringwork and the motte-and-bailey. The ringwork was a simple fortified enclosure of earth and timber, which usually surrounded one or two major buildings. The motte-and-bailey consisted of earth mound with wood or stone keep, surrounded by a ditched and palisaded enclosure or courtyard. (168-9, medieval) By the early 12th century, sieges regularly succeeded, causing another wave of fortification changes.
Earth and timber defenses were replaced with masonry, and donjons, great towers, began to replace the mottes as defense. But the most important changes came in the 15th and 16th centuries in response to the increasing power and abilities of the canon and other gunpowder-based weapons. These weapons, now used regularly in siege warfare, were able to penetrate many of the old forms of fortification. Old forts had to be modified, and new forts had to be built with this new artillery in mind. New construction often placed half the wall underground to add strength to the wall.
Walls became increasingly thick, some reaching up to 40 feet in thickness. Another fortification strategy involved the emergence of an outer enclosure in the castle construction. And finally, the most important and effective defense became the fortification of surrounding, sloping walls. By creating walls at various slopes and angles, artillery could be deflected away from the wall. “The construction of sloping talus on the walls not only dissipated the power of incoming projectiles but also allowed objects to be dropped from the wall heads which then ricocheted unpredictably towards the attackers” (medieval, 175).
Even with the use of gunpowder, siege warfare did not get much easier, because as the weapons of offensive sieges improved, so did the fortifications in response. After making numerous enemies including the Holy Roman Emperor and the Papacy, England’s Henry VIII began to fear invasion by siege. He began to actively improve and reconstruct his defenses in fortification. He designed a concentrated compact block that could be defended from any direction by internal artillery. He had the artillery set up in tiered platforms on the top. The Deal Castle at Kent shows Henry’s fortification strategy.
When enemies did arrive, it was found essentially impenetrable. The only possible way to enter was to use gunpowder to break through the castle walls. Fortification was a necessary and hugely important technology as a defensive strategy. A successful siege could be done, but not easily. In 1450, one of the most important technologies in history was perfected-the printing press. One of the most influential advancements in human history, the printing press’ impact reached essentially into every aspect of life, including war. While it did not change the weapons or strategy behind war, it had arguably, just as important an effect.
The printing press was essential in creating an entirely new mindset behind war in Europe. Its invention would ultimately make possible the long and destructive age of religious wars for the next two centuries. Gutenberg’s 15th century invention had deep social and cultural consequences. The printing press meant a greater availability for books, and a greater demand among citizens other than the wealthy. Now virtually everyone was increasingly exposed to cultural ideas. “As townsmen grew in number, education, wealth, power, with self-consciousness, their intellectual and cultural needs increased” (6 foundations).
The spread of and desire for ideas quickly transformed formerly narrow and uninterested people into intellectually curious and cultured people. And more importantly, it desecularized many, putting Christianity at the center of their lives. Religion became extremely personal to many people. Now individuals could read religious texts themselves, and could become passionate about religion from an intellectual standpoint. This religious resurgence, caused by the technology of the printing press, was instrumental in causing a mindset that made possible a war based on religion.
By being able to read printed materials, values changed among individuals, and religious beliefs were strengthened. This deep passion for religion, which was the central issue of warfare in the 16th and 17th centuries, never could have arisen without the technology of the printing press. The mindset behind war is a form of warfare, and the printing press caused the religious zeal that would be necessary for religious war to take place. The printing press was indeed a technology that dramatically affected warfare-it made people capable of fighting.
In the 21st century, the increasing advancements of technology have an even greater influence on warfare than ever before. Looking at weapons alone-from the longbow to the gun to the nuclear missile-technology in warfare is constantly improving. But is this necessarily a good trend? As technology improves, skill becomes much less of a factor than ever before. The more advanced the technology becomes, the less skilled one needs to be to use it. Also as technology improves, the capability for destruction grows. Today, the pushing of a button can erase the majority of the world.
So it seems the increase in technology over time has resulted in less skill necessary among people in war, as well as more possibilities for destruction. While we look at history and seem to value the strides in technology and its effect on warfare, maybe we should not cherish these advancements so dearly. Technological advancements in warfare, in fact, have virtually no positive effect on war, other than to beat the other guy. The crossbow may have beaten the French at Crecy, but in reality, it was yet another unfortunate step in the wrong direction.