From Beggars and landsknechts to professional standing army

William of Orange, Adriaen Thomasz Key, c. 1570–84.

Upon his appointment as stadholder of Holland in 1572, one of the first tasks of William of Orange was to incorporate the unruly `Beggar’ forces into the regular army. Officers of the Beggars who refused to comply were removed. Orange even discharged Lumey because of ill discipline, despite the fact that this officer had captured Brill, the event that led to the revolt of the Holland towns in 1572. At sea the Beggar forces remained of vital importance for rather longer, but following their contribution to the relief of Alkmaar and Leiden in 1574 Orange had them merged with the newly established navy of Holland.

Reducing the burden of the soldiery upon the population was essential for Orange’s strategy. Glaring examples of misconduct by Beggar troops alienated popular support; numerous Holland regents even pondered a negotiated return to the authority of Philip II. Towns were reluctant to admit soldiers within their walls when misdeeds by members of the garrison were left unpunished. In Leiden, for example, six soldiers raped a girl; in addition the garrison menaced town council meetings. Citizens were threatening to flee or take up arms against the troops. Grievances regarding marauding, above all during the extremely unruly time period of August 1573, added to the discontent and the unwillingness to vote for new taxes. The population in fact strongly disliked all soldiers, Spanish and Dutch alike. In the Provincial States of Holland the towns controlled no fewer than 18 of the 19 votes. In order to obtain the support of the voting towns, not least with regard to new taxes that might pay for the army, Orange had no choice but to take such complaints seriously.

The task was a knotty one as exposure to danger gave soldiers a distinctive moral pretext, different from society’s norms: in war killing was not murder and the taking of booty not theft. Blurred boundaries of right and wrong rendered extortion, torture or rape justified when instrumental to achieve soldiers’ ends – above all when lack of pay had broken their contract requiring obedience. It is not true that criminals and other marginalized individuals dominated the military. These men joined the army too, but most soldiers came from the ranks of apprentices, journeymen, farmers’ sons and farm labourers. Yet they changed, as Francisco de Valdés, a Spanish general commanding several garrisons in Brabant, remarked in 1589: `The day a man picks up his pike to become a soldier, he stops being a Christian.’ The new social identification and the behaviour that went with it were emphasized by nicknames such as Bloedhont (bloodhound), Lucifer, Jonckbedorven (`early rotten’), Magere Hein (grim reaper) or simply Neus (Nose); such names signalled the belonging to very particular norms.

To reduce the Beggars’ influence Orange raised new troops, mostly from Dutch and German territories. One drawback of these men was their `landsknecht’ tradition. The individual skills of landsknechts might be outstanding but their disciplinary reputation was poor. The French soldier and chronicler Brantome characterized them in the following way in the late sixteenth century:

I have heard great captains say that such manner of landsknechts are worthless in a besieged place, because they have a strong tendency to mutiny if they do not have everything they need. They are spendthrift, ungovernable, destructive, and dissipated.

Contemporaries said that Spanish soldiers mutinied after the battle, the German landsknechts before the battle.

Discipline could only be improved with difficulty. Landsknechts might be hired by any government or warlord, but the army command had little to say about the appointment of junior officers. Each month the soldiers elected their own sergeants and officers for quartering and provisioning (two Webels, a furier or Foerier, and a Führer or Voerder). In case of grievances the landsknechts chose representatives (Ambossaten or Amissaten) to discuss their objections with the commanders. The soldiers were usually organized in rotten (squads) of ten with a rotmeester (squad-master), also popularly elected. The inner cohesion of the squad was strong; its members supported each other finding food or when wounded. They regarded their pay appropriate for `ordinary’ service only; for battles and assaults extra money was demanded, frequently in advance.

Needless to say such practices rendered the imposition of a formal hierarchy and central command structure difficult. In 1573 Orange began by having corporals appointed from above, by the captains, who were to replace the landsknecht squad masters. Similar regulations followed for sergeants and quartermasters. The position of Voerder (guide to troops’ quarters) was abolished altogether. While the number of landsknecht officers had varied and been subject to negotiation, the size of the standard infantry staff was fixed by Orange at 13. These measures established a more hierarchical structure of command and made Dutch forces both better disciplined and more effective.

His next step was to reduce the size of the large landsknecht company. Between 1574 and 1577 companies with 150 men instead of 300 or more became standard. Orange’s reforms were in all probability inspired by French, or rather Huguenot, army patterns. Huguenots – linked to Orange in various ways – probably taught him recent innovations in the tactical use of firearms during the French Wars of Religion. Their military units were rather small with a comparatively high ratio of officers to soldiers, and no landsknecht-like corporations existed. Orange’s new companies were likewise reduced and a larger number of men armed with firearms, permitting more flexible operations which suited the warfare in the Netherlands extremely well. Elsewhere at that time – such as in the Army of Flanders – units of landsknechts were significantly larger and consisted predominantly of pikemen.

Relief of Leiden after the siege, 1574.

The comparatively high proportion of officers to soldiers improved control over the conduct of the rank and file. Orange’s basic company structure remained virtually unaltered in the decades to come. Infantry companies of the Dutch army – regardless of the actual number of men (companies of 100 became standard shortly afterwards) – contained three higher officers (captain, lieutenant and ensign), two sergeants, four corporals, two drummers, a company clerk and a barber-surgeon. The standard cavalry company consisted of eight officers: captain, lieutenant, cornet, quartermaster, two trumpeters, company clerk and farrier. Sergeants and quartermasters had specific tasks regarding the maintenance of discipline, supported by corporals who were answerable for their section (one-third or one-quarter) of the soldiers. The latter also trained new recruits. The writer or clerk had to be an honest man with some means of his own, taking care of the registration of soldiers’ pay and keeping account of their actual number. The drummers not only had to be able to drum but were also expected to speak a couple of foreign languages, as they could be sent out to ransom soldiers taken hostage by the enemy. All these lower officers were appointed by the captains. The higher officers (captains, lieutenants, cornets and ensigns) received their commissions from the higher army command or the paymasters.

Under Orange’s direction the Articles of War were also changed, with the creation of additional disciplinary regulations. Most important was the fact that the Articles were no longer a kind of contract between soldiers and their paymasters but a set of duties for soldiers imposed from above. The Articles no longer addressed the soldiers as `you’ (`U’ or `Ghy’); instead the requirements were stated in the abstract third person. All references to landsknecht traditions disappeared (the ring, the Ambossaten), along with mention of the Schlachtmonat (battle month), which stated that a new pay month was to begin after each battle. Earlier in the century a soldier usually took service for three months, but the Articles now made no reference to the duration of the contract, which was assumed to be indefinite. Soldiers now signed on for life; even elderly soldiers remained in the army, performing guard duties or looking after the training of new recruits. This permanency constituted a significant marker of professionalization, alongside the obligatory requirements of obedience and discipline imposed from above.

In the established historiography, Maurice is usually credited with the famous Articles of War of 1590, although some authors point to Leicester as the auctor intellectualis. Yet when the wording is examined, it becomes obvious that this evolved from Orange’s original set of 1574 (for Holland’s army, with 34 clauses) and his improved version of 1578 (for the States’ army, increased to 48). Leicester copied them and added some new items, totalling 55, in 1585. In 1590, under Maurice, there were no fewer than 82 Articles. The last set remained in use until 1799 with only a minor revision in 1705.

The permanent contract, introduced by Orange’s Articles, became a real permanency after 1588 when Dutch troops were no longer disbanded after the campaigns but remained in service year after year, permitting the emergence of a true standing army with increasingly professional characteristics. The troops might be labelled mercenaries, but the institutional setting was thoroughly state-controlled. In times of emergency additional mercenaries in the pay of the United Provinces were contracted. The number of truly independent military entrepreneurs – commanders with their own armies, typical of the Thirty Years War – was always limited. Under pressure from the Spanish counter-offensive of the early 1620s the Dutch contracted the celebrated military entrepreneurs, Count Ernst of Mansfeld and the Duke Christian of Brunswick, for a period of two years. Civilians feared their reputation: the troops under Christian (nickname `the Mad Duke’) had allegedly killed 5,000 peasants on their way to Brabant. Indeed, they proved extremely difficult to control and as soon as possible their high mightinesses tried to get rid of these mercenaries again.

Apart from these mercenaries the regular Dutch forces always contained a significant proportion of soldiers from other countries, both Protestant and Catholic. English companies were valued highly, by Orange as well as his sons, for their long military experience. Numerous French and German soldiers took up service too. The mix of nationalities occasionally hampered the command structure since soldiers hesitated to obey a colonel who belonged to a country other than their captain’s. Rivalries between the different nationalities also caused disturbances in army camps, usually related to drinking and gambling. In 1600 a gambling dispute involved as many as five or six hundred French, German and Frisian soldiers, of whom at least six were killed. Guards were placed between the different camps and after 1603 such fights seemed to have disappeared altogether.

Officers and men

Civilian control over the army was strong, as earlier demonstrated in relation to military jurisdiction, regulation of pay and mustering of troops. With regard to the appointment of officers, the role of civilians was likewise prominent. After Leicester had left in 1587 the provinces established themselves firmly in the forefront as paymasters of the troops and thus also responsible for the appointment of senior officers, from the rank of ensign up to colonel. The power of the Council of State was reduced; troops were only to be raised after explicit approval by the provinces in the States-General. Henceforth the Council exercised only an administrative oversight where Dutch forces were concerned, under guidelines laid down by the States-General, and the higher officers were appointed in a process dominated by the stadholder and the provincial governments. The lower officers (sergeants and corporals) received their commissions from the captains, as during Orange’s time.

One disadvantage of such regulations was that officers who enjoyed good relations with the provincial government but who were not necessarily experienced in military matters were often selected. In 1618 Maurice, William Louis and Frederick Henry drew up a decree that enhanced furthered professionalization. For the ranks of captain and above all candidates should have served a minimum for at least four years in the States’ army; for lieutenants, ensigns and cornets three years’ service was required. Captains were chosen from a list of five candidates, compiled in consultation with the provincial government but obligatorily including the current lieutenant and the current ensign/cornet of the company. For the positions of lieutenants and ensigns/cornets, the captain was to make a list of suitable candidates, from which the provincial paymasters were to select three; in the case of a lieutenant’s position the current ensign/cornet was always added as the fourth candidate. The stadholder picked the officers from these lists, giving prominence to the individuals’ past military records. In the case of equally suitable candidates from both native and foreign backgrounds, the Dutch were to be given the advantage. In addition, all captains, lieutenants and corporals of the cavalry too old or injured to serve were to be discharged with a pension, permitting more able officers to take their place. In the infantry such rules were unnecessary as elderly or disabled officers could still perform duties in garrisons; the cavalry involved much more active service, however, with many hours on horseback during convoys or raids in the countryside. And although forbidden since the very beginning of Orange’s command, the `Ordre’ of 1618 stipulated once again that the position of captain or other officer rank must never be bought or sold.

Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen

This was another step towards a more professional army, and it was exemplified by the career of Johan Maurice, Count of Nassau-Siegen. Having started in 1618 as a pikeman in the guard of William Louis, Maurice followed Frederick Henry to the Palatinate as a cavalryman in 1620 and became ensign shortly thereafter. In 1624 he was commissioned as captain of a company, becoming lieutenant-colonel in 1626, colonel in 1629, and ending up as field marshal of the Dutch army. Johan Maurice was a descendant of one of Orange’s brothers, Jan IV of Nassau. In 1625 no fewer than 25 other descendants of Jan IV served in the Dutch army, almost all as officers.

The hierarchical chain of command, the functional assignments to more experienced officers subject to formal regulations and the increased powers of the military authorities exercised in tandem with the Provincial States of Holland together made the States’ troops a model army of the time. Since the 1590s war had increasingly become `not an act of uncontrolled violence, but rather the orderly application of force, directed by a competent and legitimate authority, in the interest of the state’, exactly as the famous scholar Lipsius had recommended. Yet at the same time there remained a number of significant shortcomings. The absence of commanding officers, sometimes even during field operations, was endemic. It was all but impossible to dismiss officers guilty of fraud, insubordination or military incompetence, as any dismissal of a commanding officer would almost certainly lead to the disintegration of the company concerned.

Furthermore, though posts were not sold openly, captains were able to require `gifts’ from their successors. Regulations regarding the prohibition of the sale of military offices had to be amplified in 1628 and again in 1637.

Another problem was the high attrition rate in the number of troops. Maurice estimated that after a campaign of three or four months one-quarter to one-third of the men were lost due to desertion, disease or death. Such high `wastage’ rates were normal in early modern Europe. In the cavalry, the desertion of soldiers was much less of a problem, but the need to find good, strong horses to replace the animals crippled or killed restricted the availability of the horsemen. In the second half of the seventeenth century a cavalry horse cost 120 to 130 guilders, twice the annual pay for an infantryman.

An additional drawback affecting operational efficiency was that not all soldiers were acquainted with their senior commanders; neither did they always know their comrades in arms. Under Maurice, troops were divided in wintertime between the garrisons; he decided the composition of the regiments for the subsequent campaign and often redistributed soldiers to new units. The pressure of the Spanish counter-offensive of the early 1620s produced a change in this practice. The first permanent infantry regiment dated from 1623, when the troops were dissolved in wintertime but returned to the same units the following spring. Throughout the later decades of the Eighty Years War the continuing war threat kept regimental organization intact and encouraged regular exercise and drill, further enhancing professionalization. However, that was to change once peace was signed in 1648.

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