Asia Defense

This Is How Europe Conquered Asia

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Asia Defense

This Is How Europe Conquered Asia

It was not just superior technology that enabled European states to establish colonies in Asia.

This Is How Europe Conquered Asia
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Richard Knötel

In our tech-obsessed world, many tend to believe that military superiority is largely the product of superior military technology: The more advanced a country’s missile force, the more likely it is to prevail in a military confrontation in the 21st century. While this is certainly correct up to a point, we often tend to neglect a more mundane and less exciting component of guaranteeing a military force’s superiority over an adversary: military drills.

Today, we take intense close-order and extended-order (combat) drills in militaries across the world for granted. However, military drilling has been a relatively modern invention. First introduced by the ancient Romans in training their legionnaires, it was largely forgotten until the 16th century when it was rediscovered by Maurice of Nassau, Prince of Orange (1567-1625) who laid the foundations for modern routines of army drills.

Trying to beat the Spanish Empire in the Low Countries, Maurice introduced systematic drills on the basis of Roman precedents, endlessly forcing his soldiers to load and fire their matchlock muskets (42 separate, successive moves) in unison. Maurice also regularized marching, enabling his soldiers to maintain close-order formation even on the move. By keeping in step, his soldiers were able to advance simultaneously with every man ready to fire at the same time.

In addition, Maurice divided his army up into smaller tactical units based on the maniples of Roman legions. By doing so he created battalions of 550 men subdivided into companies and platoons, with each unit capable of executing orders in unison based on a single command. Furthermore, by perfecting the countermarch, he enhanced his infantry’s firepower with the introduction of volley fire.

While the Japanese Shogun Oda Nobunaga had used volley fire at the Battle of Nagashino in 1575 already and Ottoman Janissaries had fired in volleys in 1605 and conducted close-order drills, as the historian Cathan J. Nolan points out in his book The Allure of Battle, it was the superior close-order training of European soldiers based on Maurice’s model, rather than firepower alone, that ultimately made European armies such a deadly opponent once they were sent overseas to conquer territories for kings and queens.

During the 17th, 18th, and for the first six decades of the 19th century it was the determined charge of well-disciplined European-trained soldiers with bayonets fixed on their muskets in massed formation, often preceded by volley fire at close range, that was perhaps the single most important tactical factor in deciding the outcome of battles in Asia. The bayonet charge in particular, dependent on its mass impact and shock, could only succeed with superbly drilled troops.

“It is fair to say that a triangular-bladed socket knife rather than British guns and superior British military technology conquered the British Raj,” I noted in a piece for The Diplomat Magazine last year. Only with the introduction of the Enfield Pattern 1853 rifle-musket in 1856 did military technology, based on the disciplined delivery of volley fire, became more important than the blade in the conquest of India. As I explained:

During many decisive engagements in the 18th and first half of the 19th century, Indian armies were able to deploy superior firepower. For example, during the Battle of Plassey in 1757, the British East India Company fielded eight cannons, whereas the Mughal Empire went into the fight with 53 artillery pieces, the majority of superior caliber to the British guns. When the city of Seringapatam fell in 1799, during the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War, more than 900 canons were captured by the British East India Company while the British forces and their allies had less than a hundred.

The most formidable enemy that the British encountered during the 19th century was the Sikh Empire. It was their artillery in particular that made the Sikhs such a dangerous enemy. By the time the first Anglo-Sikh War broke out in 1845, the Sikhs were able to field 250 modern artillery pieces.  “Sikh artillery was formidable, its accurate and unremitting fire a grim feature of both Sikh Wars,” according to [the historian] Richard Holmes. Indeed, the Battle of Chillianwala during the Second Anglo-Sikh War was the bloodiest battle fought in the history of the British East India Company. Most British casualties occurred during a head-on assault of British infantry against Sikh guns. The well-trained Sikh gunners fired grapeshot at the attackers and held their position. The British infantry had to halt its attack and retreat.

Ultimately, the British, however, prevailed. “Good soldiers don’t think, they just obey,” as the former British soldier-turned-mercenary Daniel Dravot said in the movie adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s novella The Man Who Would Be King. While this certainly no longer holds true for the modern battlefield, the example of Maurice of Nassau and European armies in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries should serve as an important reminder that military technology alone will seldom lead to success on the battlefield and that our modern-day obsessions with weapons systems when discussing defense issues is perhaps too one-sided.