Aelian and Fire by Countermarch
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Aelian and Fire by Countermarch

A scene from the film "The Godfather" with a man in a sweater and necktie clenching his fists and saying "just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in"
Taking a break from academic blogging is not as simple as it seems (meme from The Godfather, Part III courtesy of

In November 2016 I expressed a desire to read Fernando González de León’s article “Spanish Military Power and the Military Revolution.” As I found the citation in a forum post from 2011, it occurred to me that I might as well order the book instead of spending another five years wishing and hoping. González challenges Maurice of Nassau’s claim that after reading Aelian’s tactical manual he invented a drill where soldiers fired one rank at a time and then countermarched to get out of the way while they reloaded their cumbersome weapons. (The original letter in which Maurice makes this claim survives, and photos of his sketch of the new tactic have been reprinted in, if I remember correctly, Parker’s Military Revolution). González thinks this was already practised in Hapsburg armies. I wrote this post back in 2017, and decided to post it after listening to the Ancient Warfare Podcast on Ancient Military Manuals in June 2018.

This drill was developed to meet the needs of a particular time and place. In the 16th and 17th centuries, soldiers loaded their matchlock muskets and arquebuses with loose powder and balls and defended themselves with swords and daggers. Manipulating all of this equipment and a lit match without setting oneself on fire or shooting a neighbour was a slow process, and there was a danger that infantry who fired all at once would be over-run by enemies before they could reload. Clubbed muskets or cheap swords were no match for pikes or lances, and when more than two or three ranks of soldiers tried to fire at once, they tended to shoot, deafen, or ignite each other. Ordering the front rank to fire and then countermarch (march to the rear between their file and its neighbour) was a convenient way to get them out of the way while they reloaded. Famously, soldiers in Europe and Japan took to this drill, while soldiers in India and most of the Moslem world rejected it. By the 18th century, infantry were armed with bayonets and issued with pre-made paper cartridges and muskets which made their own fire, and other drills were developed to suit new conditions. Having defined what we are looking for, let see how González’ argument holds up:

p. 28 In 1522 at Biocca the Spanish infantry, led by Don Fernando Dávalos, Marquis of Pescara, routed the famous Swiss soldiers who attempted to storm their dug-in positions. On Pescara’s instructions, row after row of arquebusiers discharged their weapons, then knelt down to reload while others came from behind to fire, submitting the enemy to an almost continuous and decisive discharge of fire (Oman, 1937, pp. 178-85). It was one of the earliest instances of a manoeuvre known as the countermarch, which Parker, who considers it a crucial element of the military revolution, calls a ‘Dutch discovery’ of 1594 (Parker, 1988, p. 19).

p. 34 Another veteran officer, Lieutenant Martin de Eguiluz, in his Milicia, Discurso y Regla Militar (written in 1586) described a manoeuver that was clearly already current in the Spanish army, designed to maintain a steady rate of fire. Platoons of arquebusiers arranged in long, shallow, three-deep rows would emerge from the cover of pikes, shoot, yield their place in the firing line to those behind them, and go back to reload. By rotating these platoons the tercios could keep the enemy under constant fire. In other words, here we have in 1586 the theoretical formation of the essential features of the countermatch described as standard practice, even though scholars have consistently attributed its invention to Maurice of Nassau in the Dutch in1594 (Eguiluz, 1592, pp. 126-7).

These certainly show ways of delivering a continual barrage of shot instead of a single overwhelming blast, but I am not sure that they are the same way which Maurice of Nassau described. González cites Sir Charles Oman’s version of Biocca rather than a primary source. Sir Charles Oman was a historian very much in the ancient and early modern tradition. He read a vast number of sources in many languages, as well as modern interpretations of them, but when it came time to write he did not always make clear which he had chosen to rely on and whether he had re-read them before writing or just trusted his memory. His long series of ‘battle pieces’ is very useful (and a fun read!) but not to be relied upon for details. Sometimes he combined two slightly different accounts or filled in a gap in his sources, and when he did this he rarely indicated it. (To be fair, I just read a nine-page article on the medieval battle of Castagnaro by two tenured, trained historians which gives an exact number of dead and prisoners and tells you the hour when the fighting started but does not name a single source … Oman at least drops a few names). So I would prefer to have a quote from a 16th century source.

The book by Martin de Eguiluz sounds more promising, but from the summary I am not sure if it describes firing in ranks by countermarch. There are many different ways for parts of a large formation to fire at once, and firing by platoons was popular in the 18th century. In the later period, platoons were arranged side-by-side and gave fire one after another, so that by the time the 16th platoon at the right end of the line had discharged its weapons, the 1st at the left end had reloaded and the 2nd next to it was almost ready … at least, that was the theory! I would also like to have the original source, as the English summary is not completely clear to me. If you read Spanish, photos of a microfilm are available from the Biblioteca Virtual del Patrimonio Bibliográfico in Spain (a version from 1595 is also available on the Hathi Trust

I also wish that González made clear that he is challenging a claim in a primary source, not a speculation by a modern writer.

Later in his chapter, González makes another important point:

p. 35 Furthermore light cavalry was, in sharp contrast to the notions prevalent in traditional scholarship, also essential in siege warfare. As a sort of rapid deployment force they were used to cut off an enemy town on the eve of a siege and prevent the entry of reinforcements, as they did during the 1572 siege of Mons (Williams, 1972, p. 40). Infantry was too slow to produce the surprise necessary for an effective encirclement. The royal cavalry’s efficient performance of this task often made the difference between a failed or a successful siege, and the Low Countries war had many more sieges than battles.

This should not surprise anyone well read in military history, but I can think of a famous specialist in early medieval warfare who does not seem to know this! Besiegers needed cavalry to steal supplies and protect them on their way into camp, while defenders could use them to make sudden attacks on the besiegers. A besieger without enough cavalry could be isolated and starved, or unable to respond when the defenders suddenly attacked a small part of their force. It was rarely possible to completely encircle the besieged place with strong and well-garrisoned entrenchments, so cavalry had plenty of opportunities to fight. When city governors in the Amarna letters pleaded for two or five or ten chariots, they did so because there was a great difference between having no mounted troops and having a few. Whatever we think about Aelian and the “Dutch drill,” González reminds us that much has been lost in the increased specialization of modern academe and the tendency of historians of one period to ignore works by specialists in another.

Further Reading: Fernando González de León, “Spanish Military Power and the Military Revolution” in Geoff Mortimer ed., Early Modern Military History, 1450-1815 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), Geoffrey Parker, The Military Revolution: Military Innovation and the Rise of the West, 1500–1800 (several editions … like Hanson’s The Western Way of War, this launched a whole field of research rebutting it). I have not read Tonio Andrade’s The Gunpowder Age: China, Military Innovation, and the Rise of the West in World History (2017)

Edit 2018-08-20: You can find the latest version of Parker’s ideas and a photo of the letter (plus some fun asides about the war of glosses between Lipsius and Scaliger) in Geoffrey Parker, “The Limits to Revolutions in Military Affairs: Maurice of Nassau, the Battle of Nieuwpoort (1600), and the Legacy,” The Journal of Military History, Vol. 71, No. 2 (April 2007) pp. 337-341

Edit 2021-10-13: See now

Tonio Andrade, “The Arquebus Volley Technique in China, c. 1560: Evidence from the Writings of Qi Jiguang.” Journal of Chinese Military History 4 (2015) pp. 115-141


Günhan Börekçi, “A Contribution to the Military Revolution debate: The Janissaries Use of Volley Fire During the Long Ottoman-Habsburg War of 1593-1606 and the Problem of Origins.” Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientiarum Hung., Volume 59 No. 4 (2006) pp. 407-438

which comprehensively demolish the idea that any one person of any one religion invented ways to fire by ranks

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9 thoughts on “Aelian and Fire by Countermarch

  1. thrashmad says:

    Frederick Lewis Taylor gives a similar description of the Battle of Biocca and cites a biography of Pescara by Giovio.

    1. Sean Manning says:

      Thanks! Sometimes chapters in volumes like that have pretty tight limits on word count, so it would be great if someone could check the original Spanish and Italian and pull out the details.

      I wish that Oman’s “Art of War in the 16th Century” was easier to obtain, it is a fun read. I am just not sure that he re-read every source he talks about before he wrote up a battle, without trusting his memory or other people’s summaries.

  2. Pen Name says:

    Tactics related to maximizing the number of armed people able to fire without obstruction are still drilled into soldiers.

    Canadian Armed Forces personnel are trained to go to a crouch with their rifles pointing alternately left and right when a column comes to a sudden stop, such as during an ambush or the sudden detection of a trip wire or other hazard ahead of them.

    1. Sean Manning says:

      Yes, it is always hard to tell what is copied from another culture, and what people figure out on their own. I have heard of LARP groups which figure out that its a good idea for a guy with a bow to buddy up with a guy with a big shield, and I don’t think they got that from the 19th century Plains Indians (Colin Taylor, Native American Weapons, {University of Oklahoma Press, 2001}) or Homer! It just took one person in their group to figure out that if they have a bow it is good to have someone else’s shield to duck behind, and if they have a big shield it is good to have someone to shoot back at the people throwing and shooting things.

  3. Review: Richard Taylor, “The Macedonian Phalanx” | Book and Sword says:

    […] of different authors, and how the proscriptions in 17th century manuals relate to practice. In an earlier post I discussed the debate amongst specialists in 16th century warfare whether the practice of firing […]

  4. Review: Richard Taylor, “The Macedonian Phalanx” – Book and Sword says:

    […] of different authors, and how the proscriptions in 17th century manuals relate to practice. In an earlier post I discussed the debate amongst specialists in 16th century warfare whether the practice of firing […]

  5. bowvsmusket says:

    I’ve always thought that debates about the origin of volley fire was a little silly. In the early renaissance, there were big blocks of harquebusiers, but supposedly the countermarch hadn’t been invented yet. So did the guys in the front rank do all the shooting while the guys behind them stood around doing nothing? I think that the guys with loaded guns would naturally step forward on their own initiative to shoot or the guys with empty guns would fall back, even if there was no formal system developed.

    There’s a video game series called Total War. In one of the games, Empire Total War, the game starts around 1700 and only the first rank can fire, and the guys in the rear ranks do indeed just stand there until the guy in front of them dies. Later on in the game, you can invent an incredible knee-bending technology that lets three ranks fire at once, instantly tripling your firepower!

    I wonder if that’s what some historians think happened with Maurice?

    1. Sean says:

      I was just looking at a painting of a 15th century camp where each captain has his arms on a pennoncel over his tent so people can find him through the crowd, and thinking that is exactly what Xenophon recommended 1800 years earlier (Bodleian Library MS Canon Class Lat. 81, fol. 49v for those following along at home). I think there was a lot of oral military wisdom which we have very limited access to before the 16th century because old soldiers taught young soldiers in person.

      Even Sir John Smythe (who was English – not exactly from a progressive country in land warfare – and believed that the military art had reached its peak in the 1540s) describes how to divide skirmishers into little societies of three or four and send one in each society forward to shoot while the others charge their pieces.

      I never played Empire but I remember handgunners in MTW and M2TW had that issue of all firing at once.

    2. Sean says:

      I have a draft post about how some military writers in the 18th century claimed to have reinvented marching in step to music for the first time since the Romans. But if you read military writers in the 17th century, even writers from a place of no importance like England, they take this for granted. Soldiers (like martial artists) don’t always have a clear understanding of the history of their art, and often try to inflate their own achievements.

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