Some Thoughts on ‘Unconventional Warfare from Antiquity to the Present Day’
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Categories: Ancient, Medieval, Modern

Some Thoughts on ‘Unconventional Warfare from Antiquity to the Present Day’

Brian Hughes and Fergus Robson (eds.) Unconventional Warfare from Antiquity to the Present Day (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) circa 80 Euros on Bookfinder

I borrowed this volume in hopes that it would have more clues as to the oldest source for Good King Robert’s Testament (it did not, although Alastair John MacDonald very kindly helped me with modern editions of the Scotichronicon). But I ended up reading about half of it (skipping the chapters on 20th century warfare such as Julia Welland on NATO’s unlucky intervention in Afghanistan and Raphäelle Branche on French Algeria).

The book is in reverse chronological order, but lets begin with Tim Piceu describing an outbreak of small war in Flanders as the Dutch Republic and Hapsburgs wrestled for control (p. 160, 164)

Freebooter raids generally started in a tavern in one of the above-mentioned frontier towns or in a town in the island of Walcheren (Zeeland). There a group of around a dozen men- no women are known to have been freebooters- discussed a tip received by a local informant who knew of booty. Although frebooter bands acted under the guidance of an experienced marauder, the conducteur, and some friends raided together, there seemed to be no regular composition of the crew. Everybody who had the courage could join in. If the value of the booty outweighed the risks, the group would decided to leave for enemy territory. They packed their weapons and victuals for some days, dressed themselves like peasants, and slipped past enemy posts to a hiding-place in enemy territory. The sources mention freebooters carrying a vaulting-pole to move across the many Flemish creeks, ditches, and tidal inlets. Travelling happened mostly at night and the band avoided major roads. … Most freebooters probably used their takings for living expenses, paying off debt or, to quote a Dutch civil servant, ‘to indulge for a little time in a bad and godforsaken life of drunkenness and whoring.’

You all meet in a tavern, forsooth! And every gamer agrees with that Dutch civil servant about the proper way to spend the spoils of an adventure, even if they have not read sources from the Wars of the Low Countries or the Yukon Gold Rush.

The rest of Tim Piceu’s article (“Lords of the Forest in Flanders: Small War by Freebooters and the Dutch Contributions System in Flanders” pp. 155-176) talks about raiding in debatable ground between the Dutch Republic and the Habsburg Empire in the 1580s. As he read both polished chronicles and contemporary documents, he noticed a contrast (p. 158):

The Vlaamsche Kronijk, for instance, noted that it ‘was surprising that they [the freebooters] had not yet been swallowed by the earth for the abundant murders they commit every day and in several ways like cutting prisoners’ throats, hanging prisoners or throwing them from the dikes [into the water] and keeping them under water with sticks until death arrives.’

Sometimes freebooter bands joined together to sack villages (18 out of 110 recorded raids) or ambush convoys (15 out of 110 attacks: p. 162). These ambushes sometimes overcame forces of several hundred armed guards and shut down all regular traffic between Bruges and neighbouring cities. And yet … (p. 162)

Although local chronicles depict freebooters as vicious murderers, the conscious and purposeful killing of a person during a raid was rare in the freebooter repertoire (only mentioned eight times). In a way, this is logical, since no ransom could be extracted from a corpse. However, freebooters did murder- some like Cornelis de Cruwenaere or Jan Don gained a reputation for homicide- and the motive was invariably greed- as was the case in the drowning of a merchant who would not agree to the ransom demand for his freedom- or to exact revenge against police forces.

His case study supports researchers on the Golden Age of Piracy (1705-1725) who argue that pirate violence was often more restrained than it seems at first glance (Blackbeard, for example, may have blockaded Charleston and robbed people at pistol-point, but none of his victims describes him killing anyone until his final battle).

Daniel E. Sutherland, “American Civil War Guerrillas” pp. 109-132 paints a picture which Xenophon would have recognized (pp. 115, 116)

Regardless, overmatched Unionists could rarely hope to protect family, friends, and property long enough for the federal army to reach their communities. Most exceptions were found in the Upper South, especially in the Union slave state of Missisouri and Kentucky and the northwestern portion of Virginia, where Unionist guerillas often outnumbered the rebels. There, they could hold their own, even, on occasion, assisting the US army in the same way that Confederate guerillas reinforced their conventional troops. As a Union officer observed of friendly bands in northwest Virginia, ‘They worked their farms, but every man had his rifle hung upon his chimney-piece and by day or by night was ready to shoulder it, … and every neighbourhood could muster its company or squad of home-guards to join in quelling seditious outbreaks.’ (Quoted in Hila Appleton Richardson, ‘Raleigh County, West Virginia, in the Civil War,’ West Virginia History 10 (1949) pp. 227-229)

Fergus Robson (“Insurgent Identities, Destructive Discourses, and Militarized Massacre: French Armies on the Warpath against Insurgents in the Vendée, Italy, and Egypt” pp. 133-154) looks at Napoleonic small war outside of Spain and the Americas (yay! those are over-done in English) and Tirol (boo! who outside of Tirol or Bavaria has heard of Andreas Hofer?) He noticed some patterns of language which anyone who has read Sumerian or Akkadian royal inscriptions will find familiar: “Those who resisted the Revolution were variously classified as fanatics, brigands, chouans, and royalists, but also as wild beasts, dogs, monsters, and more.” In the case of the Vendée this language was used by generals and officials whose soldiers were raping, drowning, and bayoneting everyone they could catch (pp. 137-138) In the case of Italy, the “ferocious hordes, barbarians, furious monsters, more barbarous than wolves or tigers” were Veronese burghers and peasants from Pavia (pp. 141-142). In his view, this language was generic and driven by the soldiers’ need to justify what they had done, not by religious or racial hatred (pp. 147-148).

Alexander Hodgkins has a chapter on the 1549 revolts in England: “‘A Great Company of Country Clowns’: Guerilla Warfare in the East Anglian and Western Rebellions (1549)” pp. 177-198. This has lots of details about how a peasant militia goes about rebelling, using their farming skills and locally available materials to counter the better-equipped royal forces and their hired soldiers from overseas. If you want to know whether marching towards a besieged city with “great trusses of hay” in your arms will stop longbow shot, check it out! It you just read English and a bit of Latin this could be a fun sixteenth-century war to study. Some of his main sources seem to be:

One of those gives this account of a duel of bow and gun at Norwich:

These things with speed returned to Kett, and his compani∣ons in the Campe, being much mooued hereat; with a brain∣sicke rage (as wild furies) they came running downe the hill with a cruell and despitefull noise, crying out. And when they came neere the Gates, they practized with all their forces to breake into the Citie, but being driuen backe with pikes and arrowes, they left that enterprise. At that time all the Ordi∣nance (as was said before) being placed in the meddowes be∣neath the Citie, was spent vpon the enemie: but for lacke of powder, and want of skill in the Gunners, to small or little pur∣pose. Yet many being shot with arrowes were wounded; which when they fell thicke vpon the ground, the beardlesse boyes of the Countrie (whereof there were a great number) and others of the dregges of the people, men most filthy, ga∣thered them vp, and carried them to the enemie: And the minds of them all were so inflamed, as the very naked, and vn∣armed boyes (as though a certaine frenzie had bereaued them of the sense of vnderstanding) running about, prouoked our men with all reprochfull speeches. There was added also to their importune cursed words, an odious, & inhumane villany:* for (with reuerence to the Readers) one of these cursed boyes, putting downe his hose, and in derision, turning his bare but∣tocks to our men, with an horrible noise and out-cry, filling the aire (all men beholding him) did that, which a chast tongue shameth to speake, much more a sober man to write: but be∣ing shot thorow the buttocks, one gaue him, as was meete, the punishment he deserued.

Archaeologist Matthew Lloyd sets out the current best-practice way to think about prehistoric Greek warfare (like an archaeologist, in terms of variation over space and time, not like a theorist constructing unchanging ideal types): “Unconventional Warfare? Variety and Change in Archaic Greek Warfare (ca. 700-ca. 480 BCE)” pp. 231-252. I hope this helps to spread the ideas of Peter Krentz and Hans van Wees to a wider audience, because in the United States many ancient historians, let alone specialists in modern warfare, seem barely aware of their work.

There are even a few cross-references between chapters!

Most conference proceedings are just a way to delay the publication of their contents for years, and charge hundreds of dollars for the privilege of reading the one chapter a typical reader is interested in. But this proceedings is more than a string of chapters placed side by side and slapped between covers with a very expensive price tag. It makes a cohesive whole which someone might chose to read through. This conference proceedings succeeds where most fail.

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2 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on ‘Unconventional Warfare from Antiquity to the Present Day’

  1. Tak Hallus says:

    Sometimes it was organized by the Catholic Church, as in the persecution of the Cathars in the 12th century and Crusades. The prospect of loot from towns that tolerated Cathars was the way of making the Pope Authorized mercenary army self funding. At Beziers they also killed the Catholic majority, burning them alive when they took refuge in the Catholic temple. Arabs in cites taken by force by Crusaders were sometimes gutted to see if they had swallowed coins or other valuables.

    Didn’t that Albigensian Crusade / holy war also exploit regional antagonism in Medieval France? Langue d’Oc versus Langue d’Oil and all that.,_Dieu_reconna%C3%AEtra_les_siens_%C2%BB

    While “Tuez-les tous, Dieu reconnaîtra les siens” may not be an exact quote it pretty much sums up the outcome and the sentiment at the time.

    The religious theory that life on earth is just a nuisance before the faithful get to collect on their afterlife insurance policy cheapens life. Catholics and other Christian cults often have a theory that suffering gets you a better deal on that policy.

    1. Sean Manning says:

      Steve Muhlberger, a medievalist in Ontario, reviewed a book on the Albigensian Crusade a few years ago which argued that it was all about regional and family rivalries and clerics who had decided that the world was so flawed it must be the result of heretics: Mark Gregory Pegg, A Most Holy War: the Albigensian Crusade and the Battle for Christendom (2008)

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