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Chapter 17


What importance the Armies of the present day should allow to Artillery; and whether the commonly received opinion concerning it be just.


Looking to the number of pitched battles, or what are termed by the French journées, and by the Italians fatti d'arme, fought by the Romans at divers times, I am led further to examine the generally received opinion, that had artillery been in use in their day, the Romans would not have been allowed, or at least not with the same ease, to subjugate provinces and make other nations their tributaries, and could never have spread their power in the astonishing way they did. For it is said that by reason of these fire-arms men can no longer use or display their personal valour as they could of old; that there is greater difficulty now than there was in former times in joining battle; that the tactics followed then cannot be followed now; and that in time all warfare must resolve itself into a question of artillery.

Judging it not out of place to inquire whether these opinions are sound, and how far artillery has added to or taken from the strength of armies, and whether its use lessens or increases the opportunities for a good captain to behave valiantly, I shall at once address myself to the first of the averments noticed above, namely, that the armies of the ancient Romans could not have made the conquests they did, had artillery then been in use.

To this I answer by saying that, since war is made for purposes either of offence or defence, we have first to see in which of these two kinds of warfare artillery gives the greater advantage or inflicts the greater hurt. Now, though something might be said both ways, I nevertheless believe that artillery is beyond comparison more hurtful to him who stands on the defensive than to him who attacks. For he who defends himself must either do so in a town or in a fortified camp. If within a town, either the town will be a small one, as fortified towns commonly are, or it will be a great one. In the former case, he who is on the defensive is at once undone. For such is the shock of artillery that there is no wall so strong that in a few days it will not batter down, when, unless those within have ample room to withdraw behind covering works and trenches, they must be beaten; it being impossible for them to resist the assault of an enemy who forces an entrance through the breaches in their walls. Nor will any artillery a defender may have be of any service to him; since it is an established axiom that where men are able to advance in numbers and rapidly, artillery is powerless to check them.

For this reason, in storming towns the furious assaults of the northern nations prove irresistible, whereas the attacks of our Italian troops, who do not rush on in force, but advance to the assault in small knots of skirmishers (scaramouches, as they are fitly named), may easily be withstood. Those who advance in such loose order, and with so little spirit, against a breach covered by artillery, advance to certain destruction, and as against them artillery is useful. But when the assailants swarm to the breach so massed together that one pushes on another, unless they be brought to a stand by ditches and earthworks, they penetrate everywhere, and no artillery has any effect to keep them back; and though some must fall, yet not so many as to prevent a victory.

The frequent success of the northern nations in storming towns, and more particularly the recovery of Brescia by the French, is proof sufficient of the truth of what I say. For the town of Brescia rising against the French while the citadel still held out, the Venetians, to meet any attack which might be made from the citadel upon the town, ranged guns along the whole line of road which led from the one to the other, planting them in front, and in flank, and wherever else they could be brought to bear. Of all which M. de Foix making no account, dismounted with his men-at-arms from horseback, and, advancing with them on foot through the midst of the batteries, took the town; nor do we learn that he sustained any considerable loss from the enemy's fire. So that, as I have said, he who has to defend himself in a small town, when his walls are battered down and he has no room to retire behind other works, and has only his artillery to trust to, is at once undone.

But even where the town you defend is a great one, so that you have room to fall back behind new works, artillery is still, by a long way, more useful for the assailant than for the defender. For to enable your artillery to do any hurt to those without, you must raise yourself with it above the level of the ground, since, if you remain on the level, the enemy, by erecting any low mound or earth-work, can so secure himself that it will be impossible for you to touch him. But in raising yourself above the level of the ground, whether by extending yourself along the gallery of the walls, or otherwise, you are exposed to two disadvantages; for, first, you cannot there bring into position guns of the same size or range as he who is without can bring to bear against you, since it is impossible to work large guns in a confined space; and, secondly, although you should succeed in getting your guns into position, you cannot construct such strong and solid works for their protection as those can who are outside, and on level ground, and who have all the room and every other advantage which they could desire. It is consequently impossible for him who defends a town to maintain his guns in position at any considerable height, when those who are outside have much and powerful artillery; while, if he place it lower, it becomes, as has been explained, to a great extent useless. So that in the end the defence of the city has to be effected, as in ancient times, by hand to hand fighting, or else by means of the smaller kinds of fire-arms, from which if the defender derive some slight advantage, it is balanced by the injury he sustains from the great artillery of his enemy, whereby the walls of the city are battered down and almost buried in their ditches; so that when it comes once more to an encounter at close quarters, by reason of his walls being demolished and his ditches filled up, the defender is now at a far greater disadvantage than he was formerly. Wherefore I repeat that these arms are infinitely more useful for him who attacks a town than for him who defends it.

As to the remaining method, which consists in your taking up your position in an entrenched camp, where you need not fight unless you please, and unless you have the advantage, I say that this method commonly affords you no greater facility for avoiding an engagement than the ancients had; nay, that sometimes, owing to the use of artillery, you are worse off than they were. For if the enemy fall suddenly upon you, and have some slight advantage (as may readily be the case from his being on higher ground, or from your works on his arrival being still incomplete so that you are not wholly sheltered by them), forthwith, and without your being able to prevent him, he dislodges you, and you are forced to quit your defences and deliver battle: as happened to the Spaniards at the battle of Ravenna. For having posted themselves between the river Ronco and an earthwork, from their not having carried this work high enough, and from the French having a slight advantage of ground, they were forced by the fire of the latter to quit their entrenchments come to an engagement.

But assuming the ground you have chosen for your camp to be, as it always should, higher than that occupied by the enemy, and your works to be complete and sufficient, so that from your position and preparations the enemy dare not attack you, recourse will then be had to the very same methods as were resorted to in ancient times when an army was so posted that it could not be assailed; that is to say, your country will be wasted, cities friendly to you besieged or stormed, and your supplies intercepted; until you are forced, at last, of necessity to quit your camp and to fight a pitched battle, in which, as will presently appear, artillery will be of little service to you.

If we consider, therefore, for what ends the Romans made wars, and that attack and not defence was the object of almost all their campaigns, it will be clear, if what I have said be true, that they would have had still greater advantage, and might have achieved their conquests with even greater ease, had artillery been in use in their times.

And as to the second complaint, that by reason of artillery men can no longer display their valour as they could in ancient days, I admit it to be true that when they have to expose themselves a few at a time, men run more risks now than formerly; as when they have to scale a town or perform some similar exploit, in which they are not massed together but must advance singly and one behind another. It is true, also, that Captains and commanders of armies are subjected to a greater risk of being killed now than of old, since they an be reached everywhere by the enemy's fire; and it is no protection to them to be with those of their men who are furthest from the enemy, or to be surrounded by the bravest of their guards. Still, we do not often find either of these two dangers occasioning extraordinary loss. For towns strongly fortified are not attacked by escalade, nor will the assailing army advance against them in weak numbers; but will endeavour, as in ancient times, to reduce them by regular siege. And even in the case of towns attacked by storm, the dangers are not so very much greater now than they were formerly; for in those old days also, the defenders of towns were not without warlike engines, which if less terrible in their operation, had, so far as killing goes, much the same effect. And as for the deaths of captains and leaders of companies, it may be said that during the last twenty-four years of war in Italy, we have had fewer instances of such deaths than might be found in a period of ten years of ancient warfare. For excepting the Count Lodovico della Mirandola, who fell at Ferrara, when the Venetians a few years ago attacked that city, and the Duke de Nemours, slain at Cirignuola, we have no instance of any commander being killed by artillery. For, at Ravenna, M. de Foix died by steel and not by shot. Wherefore I say that if men no longer perform deeds of individual prowess, it results not so much from the use of artillery, as from the faulty discipline and weakness of our armies, which being collectively without valour cannot display it in particular instances.

As to the third assertion, that armies can no longer be brought to engage one another, and that war will soon come to be carried on wholly with artillery, I maintain that this allegation is utterly untrue, and will always be so held by those who are willing in handling their troops to follow the usages of ancient valour. For whosoever would have a good army must train it, either by real or by mimic warfare, to approach the enemy, to come within sword-thrust, and to grapple with him; and must rely more on foot soldiers than on horse, for reasons presently to be explained. But when you trust to your foot-soldiers, and to the methods already indicated, artillery becomes powerless to harm you. For foot-soldiers, in approaching an enemy, can with more ease escape the fire of his artillery than in ancient times they could have avoided a charge of elephants or of scythed chariots, or any other of those strange contrivances which had to be encountered by the Romans, and against which they always devised some remedy. And, certainly, as against artillery, their remedy would have been easier, by as much as the time during which artillery can do hurt is shorter than the time during which elephants and chariots could. For by these you were thrown into disorder after battle joined, whereas artillery harasses you only before you engage; a danger which infantry can easily escape, either by advancing so as to be covered by the inequalities of the ground, or by lying down while the firing continues; nay, we find from experience that even these precautions may be dispensed with, especially as against great artillery, which can hardly be levelled with such precision that its fire shall not either pass over your head from the range being too high, or fall short from its being too low.

So soon, however, as the engagement is begun, it is perfectly clear that neither small nor great artillery can harm you any longer; since, if the enemy have his artillerymen in front, you take them; if in rear, they will injure him before they injure you; and if in flank, they can never fire so effectively as to prevent your closing, with the result already explained. Nor does this admit of much dispute, since we have proof of it in the case of the Swiss at Novara, in the year 1513, when, with neither guns nor cavalry, they advanced against the French army, who had fortified themselves with artillery behind entrenchments, and routed them without suffering the slightest check from their fire. In further explanation whereof it is to be noted, that to work artillery effectively it should be protected by walls, by ditches, or by earth-works; and that whenever, from being left without such protection it has to be defended by men, as happens in pitched battles and engagements in the open field, it is either taken or otherwise becomes useless. Nor can it be employed on the flank of an army, save in the manner in which the ancients made use of their warlike engines, which they moved out from their columns that they might be worked without inconvenience, but withdrew within them when driven back by cavalry or other troops. He who looks for any further advantage from artillery does not rightly understand its nature, and trusts to what is most likely to deceive him. For although the Turk, using artillery, has gained victories over the Soldan and the Sofi, the only advantage he has had from it has been the terror into which the horses of the enemy, unused to such sounds, are thrown by the roar of the guns.

And now, to bring these remarks to a conclusion, I say briefly that, employed by an army wherein there is some strain of the ancient valour, artillery is useful; but employed otherwise, against a brave adversary, is utterly useless.


Niccolo Machiavelli

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