Author’s note: The profession of arms had its modern birth in the early 1800s, when battlefield defeats of nations such as Prussia drove major reforms in the training, education, equipping, and employing military organizations. Military institutions also professionalized throughout the nineteenth century as a response to the massive changes driven by the technological and social developments of the First Industrial Revolution. These technological and social changes also drove a redefinition in the relationship between governments, society, and the military in what Williamson Murray and Wayne Hsieh have called military-social revolutions. This professional impetus continued into the twentieth century as the new technologies of the Second Industrial Revolution resulted in new organizations and new theories of war.
We now stand at the precipice of another era of revolutionary change in technology and society. Change is appearing so quickly in geopolitics, technology, demography, and other areas that some have called this an “age of accelerations.” Somehow, our profession must keep pace with these changes while also anticipating how change in society and technology will manifest on the battlefield and in the grand strategic competition in which we now find ourselves engaged.
To that end, over six articles, I will chart the modern development of our profession in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I will then examine how change in the strategic environment will drive continued evolution in the profession of arms. Importantly, I will propose areas where we, as members of this profession, must lead change and ensure our military institutions remain effective—at every level—into the twenty-first century.
It is on the current generation of military leaders to ensure that we anticipate the challenges of the present era and prepare all the members of our great profession for conflict and competition in the twenty-first century. I hope this series contributes to that task.
Over the last two hundred years, the military institutions of every major power have accepted that the military is a true profession, and that it demands both ethical sensibility and considerable intellectual investment. A profession requires particular skills and knowledge, and there are rules and credentials that govern admission. Professions are also normally bound by common values and subject to codes of conduct, which in some cases are based on rigorous ethical and moral obligations. The Australian Council of Professions describes a profession as “a disciplined group of individuals who adhere to ethical standards,” possess “special knowledge and skills,” and “are prepared to apply this knowledge and exercise these skills in the interest of others.”
This is the same for the military. As Richard Bonadonna notes in Soldiers and Civilization, a professional is “a person whose motives are ethical or broadly social rather than monetary.” In the 1950s, Samuel Huntington provided a foundational definition for the modern profession of arms, which has been applied by multiple different Western nations. Huntington identified three core aspects of the profession of arms: expertise, responsibility, and corporateness.
The modern manifestation of the profession of arms can be traced to the early 1800s. While the foundation was provided by the development of the modern nation-state in the seventeenth century, much of the impetus for modern professionalism was driven by failure on the battlefield. It was the disastrous performance by Prussian forces against Napoleon in 1806 that forced the Prussian military to undertake substantial reforms in recruiting, training, tactics, doctrine, officer promotion, command, and education—which then underpinned the modern profession.
The six-part series of articles beginning with this one will explore the birth of the modern profession with the Prussian reforms of the early 1800s, trace its development over the subsequent two centuries, and analyze the challenges and opportunities for the profession in the twenty-first century.
In each of these articles, the profession of arms will be explored through the lens of four themes that have—by themselves and in combination—driven or influenced the evolution of our profession. The four themes are events, technology, ideas, and institutions. The series will conclude with a synthesis of this multipart exploration of the profession of arms, with key findings that might assist modern-day leaders to guide their institutions through the perils and opportunities of the twenty-first century. As stewards of this great profession, we owe our people and the nations we serve nothing less than our full measure of devotion to this task.
Events Driving Nineteenth-Century Change in the Profession
One the largest forces that drove change in the nineteenth century was the First Industrial Revolution. It altered almost every aspect of human life and resulted in new technologies that would fundamentally change many aspects of military affairs. This revolution also generated wealth for national governments, which they would use to mobilize larger military organizations and pay for expanded alliances. While we will examine this more in the section on technology, other events also shaped the development of the profession of arms throughout the nineteenth century.
The Napoleonic Revolution. Eminent American military historians Williamson Murray and MacGregor Knox have described the French Revolution also as one of the most significant military revolutions of the last three centuries. The French government created a new system that could draw hundreds of thousands of men from society into the Army and employ them where and when required. This levée en masse resulted in armies larger than had previously been seen in Europe and drove reforms in tactics such as new corps-level maneuver, as well as reforms in command and supply.
The movement and support of Army corps required better command and control, which drove Napoleon to institute new staff systems. These allowed for greater unity of command and greater speed of execution once orders were issued. This, however, was set against a larger shift that Knox describes as a “political-ideological revolution that remade warfare from top to bottom, from strategy, to operations and logistics, to tactics.” Soldiers now fought not only for their commanders, or their Emperor; they fought for their nation. This relationship between nation and the military was an important development.
The importance of the Napoleonic revolutions extends beyond the contribution to disruptive thinking about campaigns and the relationship between the military and the state. The new Napoleonic approach led to the crushing defeats of Prussia’s military at Jena-Auerstadt in October 1806, which in turn led to the period of Prussian introspection that drove a wave of modernization in the profession of arms in the nineteenth century. It resulted in two disruptive ideas in military affairs: first, “the thinking combatants that only universal service could provide”; and second, “a thinking officer corps and staff system.” As Huntington notes, “to Prussia goes the distinction of originating the professional officer.”
The Crimean War. When thinking of the Crimean War (1853–1856), most people do so in the context of military leadership incompetence and logistic failures. It is true that poor leadership did result in unnecessary battlefield losses and widespread disease among the troops. However, this overshadows important lessons from the application of new technologies. The Crimean War was the first in which many of the new inventions of the First Industrial Revolution were on display.
During the campaign, British railway entrepreneurs built a railway that connected the allied port at Balaklava to the front line. It became increasingly fundamental to supplying the front lines, especially in wet conditions, and was vital for moving large new artillery pieces, mortars, and their ammunition during the siege of Sevastopol. The telegraph was another important new addition to the ability of military commanders to communicate. The allies laid large networks above ground and underwater, using civilian and military engineers, and transmitted messages in several languages. The application of the telegraph allowed military leaders to coordinate and organize campaigns, gather and share intelligence, and better command and control their forces. These new technologies would eventually change how military institutions operated, and how they educated the members of the profession.
The US Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War. These two major conflagrations on different continents fundamentally changed warfare and how military leaders thought about war. Both featured protagonists that applied the new technologies of the age—steam trains, the telegraph, and modern manufacturing. The Prussians also combined their new weapons with a new approach of strategic offensive, tactical offensive.
As Trevor Dupuy notes in The Evolution of Weapons and Warfare, Helmuth von Moltke’s idea to conduct an offensive strategy while placing infantry where they could employ tactically defensive firepower, was not new. Both sides in the US Civil War had applied this approach, including Robert E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson at Chancellorsville in 1863, and Ulysses S. Grant in fighting around Richmond in 1864 and 1865. But in wars where all belligerents were armed with breech-loading weapons and were institutionally inclined to use age-old linear and column infantry drills, the Prussian use of this approach was decisive. It demonstrated that in an era of new and disruptive technologies, military institutions would need new ideas and organizations to generate a decisive advantage over their adversaries.
Williamson Murray and Wayne Hsieh have described these events as “military-social revolutions”—momentous happenings that changed states and societies in addition to their military institutions. The first great military social revolution was the creation of the modern nation-state and bureaucratic, disciplined military organizations. Successive military social revolutions—the industrial and French revolutions, as well the development of modern war in the wake of the US Civil War—shaped the profession of arms throughout the nineteenth century.
The price of not keeping up with the military social revolution in the nineteenth century was high. In his book, The Franco-Prussian War, Sir Michael Howard recounts the causes of the war, its conduct, and its key lessons. Importantly, he takes a long view of the lead up to the war, noting that “the social and economic developments of the past fifty years had brought about a military as well as an industrial revolution. The Prussians had kept abreast of it and France had not. Therein lay the basic cause of her defeat.” Looking forward to another century of rapid technological, societal, and military change, this is an important lesson for national and military leaders, as well as policymakers and strategists.
New Technology: A Steam-Driven Transformation
The requirement to lift water out of mines was a key driver in the development of steam power. Building on the discoveries of Italian Evangelista Torricelli and Frenchman Blaise Pascal, the Savery engine was developed from 1695 in England. It suffered from major shortcomings, but it did however show the potential for the use of steam power in industry. This kickstarted various inventions and discoveries that would eventually power the coming transformation of industry, society, and the profession of arms during the First Industrial Revolution.
New technology also revolutionized the conduct of war. The nineteenth century saw the introduction of steam-driven rapid movement on land (railroads) and at sea (steamships). Steam-powered factories made possible for the first time the mass manufacture of standardized weapons, munitions, supplies, and other needs of armies and navies.
Changes in warfare did not occur immediately, however. The French and British armies that faced each other at Waterloo fought in what would be considered traditional fashion. But eventually, military institutions began to recognize the benefits of new inventions that were appearing in industry and in civil society. Starting with the Crimean War, rifles, steamships, railroads, and the telegraph permitted the long-range deployment of forces that could defeat numerically superior (but technologically inferior) military forces.
The potential application of steam trains for military operations was recognized first by European militaries. In the mid-1800s, a mini–arms race in railway construction was underway in Europe. The British Royal Navy starting using steam-powered ships in the 1830s. Shortly afterwards, the first steam-powered ships were propelled by a screw propeller. The USS Princeton was commissioned by the US Navy in September 1843 and HMS Rattler was commissioned by the Royal Navy in January 1845. These new steam-powered ships heralded the end of the age of sail and enabled the large-scale movement of troops and supplies on inland rivers by steamboats.
But it was on the land where steam resulted in the greatest transformation of warfare. The new technology of the railways promised significantly enhanced capacity, speed, and efficiency. In 1846, the potential of rail movement of troops was demonstrated when Prussia rapidly transported twelve thousand troops, with horses and guns, to suppress the Polish rebellion in the Free City of Krakow.
While Europeans were the early adopters of steam trains and railways in warfare, it was the US Civil War that would revolutionize trains in support of continental warfare. Because of the Civil War’s duration, geographic breadth, and complexity, the movement of troops and conduct of logistic support by railway was of revolutionary importance. As Murray and Hsieh note, “The steam engines that powered railroad trains and the steamboats that cruised not only the South’s coasts but also its rivers would prove to be the crucial enabler of the North’s victory, because they shrank the tyranny of distance.”
A final technological advance of this era was communications. Building on discoveries in electrical generation, transmission of current, and interpretation of electrical signals into messages, the first electric telegraphs were developed. Working independently on either side of the Atlantic, William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone in England and Samuel Morse in the United States developed the means to communicate quickly over long distances. In the 1840s, telegraph lines were constructed in England and the United States. While the British Admiralty was an early adopter of the new communications means in 1844, and it was used in the Crimean War, the telegraph would prove its military worth on a massive scale during the US Civil War just under two decades later.
New Ideas for a Profession and the Phenomenon of War
Prussia was the first country to institute, at least according to Huntington’s criteria, a complete and well-rounded approach to the profession. These reforms were instituted over the period from 1806 to 1812. This system was the most sophisticated of its type and was a key contributor to the Prussian defeat of France in 1870. John Winthrop Hackett notes that this was a victory of a nation that had taken professionalism in the military more seriously than its adversary.
Gerhard von Scharnhorst was a leading Prussian officer who was a key leader in the development of the modern profession of arms. He was a military officer in the Hanoverian army in the 1790s and also possessed significant experience as a military instructor. A reformer, Scharnhorst set out to redefine the military profession through a framework that combined the development of both character and intellect. As Charles Edward White examines in The Enlightened Solider, Scharnhorst’s approach was founded on his belief that by investing in the intellectual development of military leaders, military organizations could develop a more enlightened attitude to change in an era when the character of warfare was evolving.
The Prussian reforms undertaken from 1806 reflected this balanced application of intellect and character. Scharnhorst’s reforms were informed by his understanding of the German enlightenment concept of bildung. Bildung focused on a well-developed relationship between intellect and character. First used in the 1750s and referring to educational thinking, it is most often translated into English as “formation.” The idea of bildung was the basis for Scharnhorst’s work in developing a cohort of Prussian officers devoted to excellence in the profession of arms. This concept of a military profession underpinned by a dedication to building character and intellectual capacity is one of Scharnhorst’s main contributions to the modern idea of the profession of arms. But other theorists were examining new means of warfare.
Theorists of war in the nineteenth century also sought to explore new methods of fighting in order to respond to the increased lethality of new weapons and the impact of railways and telegraphic communications. The earliest work of this new age was The Spirit of the Modern System of War, published by Dietrich Heinrich von Bülow in 1799. This was succeeded in the following decades by theorists such as Antoine-Henri Jomini, Ardant du Picq, Helmuth von Moltke, and Alfred Thayer Mahan. But perhaps the greatest, and certainly the best known, was a Prussian from the Duchy of Magdeburg, Carl von Clausewitz.
It was in the early 1800s that Clausewitz also offered further definition of the profession in On War. The Clausewitzian conception of the professional officer was comparable to Scharnhorst’s. Further, he wrote about the qualities that were indispensable for the professional officer. Clausewitz believed that these were: first, an intellect that contains an inner light that leads to truth even in the darkest hour; and, second, the courage or determination to follow this faint light. It was the synthesizing of these two characteristics by military leaders that allowed them to cope with, and succeed in, conditions of friction and uncertainty.
Another nineteenth-century military theorist, with whom Clausewitz is often compared, was Jomini. In the Napoleonic Wars, Jomini had served in France’s Grande Armée, including during the French retreat from Moscow. Jomini published his core ideas on warfare in his aptly titled book, The Art of War, in 1830. Revised in 1838, it has been described by Sir Lawrence Freedman as “the greatest military textbook of the nineteenth century.” As Beatrice Heuser notes, Jomini believed the central place in warfare was campaign-deciding battles. His conception of warfare was also guided by two, interrelated principles: the vital importance of operating on “interior lines” and of placing superior power at the decisive point of the battle.
Jomini and Clausewitz demonstrated many common ideas on warfare in their writings. On the nature of warfare, Jomini’s approach was similar to Clausewitz’s, writing that war was “far from being an exact science [and] is a terrible and impassioned drama.” And like Clausewitz, he believed that gifted commanders were necessary—commanders whose intuition would ensure the proper application of the principles of war. Both Jomini and Clausewitz also appreciated, as Heuser notes, the “enormous force of populations emotionally and physically mobilised for a war.”
But there were also differences between the approaches of the two. Clausewitz used history extensively. Jomini, however, drew almost exclusively on his personal experience in the Napoleonic Wars for his theories. Jomini’s ideas were focused more at the lower (or tactical) levels of war and founded on his belief that war could be directed scientifically.
Writing in an American edition of his Summary of the Art of War, published in 1854, Jomini wrote that “there exists a small number of fundamental principles of war, which could not be deviated from without danger, and the application of which, on the contrary, has been in almost all time crowned with success.” Various principles of war thereafter began appearing in the doctrine of different nations’ militaries. The first French manual delineating such principles was published in 1895. In 1921, the US Army followed suit with its Training and Regulations 10-5 field manual. The British published their own version, in their Field Service Regulations, in 1924. Jomini’s principles-based approach was also used by Alfred Thayer Mahan in producing his Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660–1783. Principles of war remain an enduring element in the doctrine of many military institutions.
In the late nineteenth century, several other influential writers sought to identify the means to successfully conduct future operations. Ardant du Picq, a French officer, recognized the decisive influence of modern firepower. His principal interest, however, lay in the psychological and moral aspects of war. His ideas, expressed in his publications such as Battle Studies, had a significant influence in the army’s response to the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, particularly in developing combat behaviors and understanding the psychological impact of warfare.
While this is not an exhaustive survey of nineteenth-century military theory, any such review would be decidedly incomplete without describing one final and important development: new ideas about conflict at sea. Jomini had included a short section on maritime operations, “Sketch of the Principal Maritime Expeditions,” at the end of his book, Summary of the Art of War, Clausewitz and Sun Tzu almost entirely ignored the topic, and until the end of the 1800s, no major treatise on maritime strategy had been produced.
That changed in 1890 when Alfred Thayer Mahan published The Influence of Seapower Upon History 1660–1783. He described the sea as “a great highway; or better, perhaps, of a wide common, over which men may pass in all directions.” His core idea was that one should seek command of the sea. Powerful battlefleets were to be constructed, maintained, and then launched directly at the enemy fleet with the aim of annihilating it. Mahan’s thinking led to an evolution in the development of naval officers and broadened the intellectual foundation of the profession of arms.
New Professional Institutions
The final aspect of nineteenth-century development of the profession was the birth of new professional institutions. Scharnhorst’s approach to the reconstruction of the military after the defeats at Jena and Auerstadt has been recognized as the start of military professionalism in the West. Founding the Kriegsakademie in Berlin in 1810 underpinned reforms to the Prussian definition of the professional officer. This institution formed one of the pillars of military professionalism in Prussia. Other pillars included requirements for general and special entry, promotion exams, advancement on merit, an effective staff system, and a sense of collective unity and responsibility. Together, these defined the Prussian profession of arms, which underpinned Prussia’s battlefield success in the 1800s.
However, the Prussians had hardly been the first to establish modern schools to undertake the initial training of their officers. The British had already established Sandhurst in 1799 and West Point had opened in 1802. Within a decade, the French established a military staff school, similar to the Kriegsakademie, at St. Cyr in 1818.
As warfare evolved during the nineteenth century, military institutions began to appreciate the requirement for additional training and education for their leaders. The demands of train- and steamboat-driven acceleration in the pace of war, and the logistic demands of larger armies and longer campaigns, led to the creation of staff colleges in multiple nations. This included the British in 1857 (in what was formerly the senior college at Sandhurst) and the Americans with the Army Command and General Staff College in 1881. Following the disastrous 1870–71 war against Prussia, the French rekindled their investment in the profession and established the École Militaire Supérieure. This new crop of professional institutions, that catered to higher-level intellectual demands of a more technological and fast-moving era of war from the middle of the nineteenth century, was described by Sir John Hackett as “a wave of military professionalism.”
The development of the profession of arms in the nineteenth century was the result of events in the wider world, new ideas about war and military professionalism, novel technologies, and a variety of new institutions. This four-part framework is useful for exploring the institutional antecedents of the profession in its first two centuries. But it also provides a lens for military leaders to anticipate challenges and opportunities, adapt to change, and continue evolving the profession of arms in the twenty-first century.
In conclusion, it is worth reflecting on the key developments of the profession of arms in the nineteenth century. As explored in this article, the five most important developments were:
- The succession of military-social revolutions that re-shaped the relationship between the state and its armed forces.
- New theories of war on land and the sea to accompany new technologies.
- Establishment of professional officer training establishments and staff colleges to prepare officers for more senior leadership and staff appointments.
- Adaptation by the profession to new technology.
- Evolution of the profession for industrialization of mass warfare on land and at sea from the Crimean War onwards.
These five developments contributed to a transformed approach to the development and employment of military power by European and American governments. They also laid the foundations for the absorption of new technologies that emerged at the end of the nineteenth and start of the twentieth centuries. This provided the foundational ideas and organizations for more innovation and adaptation by military institutions, and the nations they served, in the twentieth century. The twentieth-century changes in the profession of arms will be the topic of the next article in this series.
Maj. Gen. Mick Ryan is an Australian Army officer. A graduate of Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and the USMC Command and Staff College and School of Advanced Warfare, he is a passionate advocate of professional education and lifelong learning. He has commanded at platoon, squadron, regiment, task force, and brigade level, and is a science fiction fan, a cricket tragic, terrible gardener, and an aspiring writer. In January 2018, he assumed command of the Australian Defence College in Canberra, Australia. He is an adjunct scholar at the Modern War Institute, and tweets under the handle @WarInTheFuture.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image: Meeting of the Reformers in Königsberg in 1807, by Carl Röchling