War Made New begins with a crisp introduction, sketching four revolutions in warfare since 1500 around which Max Boot chose to organize his book. It ends in a fog of acronyms for weapons still on the drawing boards, uncertainty about future military revolutions, and “The Danger of Too Much Change—and Too Little.” In between Boot found many persuasive things to say about how changes in military technology and management affected the course of European and world history, illustrating each of his military revolutions with detailed accounts of three specific battles or campaigns.
The first of these changes, the “Gunpowder Revolution,” actually started in China, but Boot does not discuss that. Instead he confines his attention to Europe, where, he says, gunpowder was first recorded as early as 1267. But it remained of marginal importance until 1494, when a French army marched into Italy with mobile siege guns, easily shattering hitherto impregnable fortifications with a few hours of bombardment, only to withdraw without any lasting gain, while spreading the nasty new disease of syphilis far and wide as it retreated.
Boot illustrates the Gunpowder Revolution by choosing first to describe how the Spanish Armada was defeated by the superior guns and tactics of the English navy (1588) and how Swedish soldiers won two hard-fought victories during the Thirty Years’ War in Germany at Breitenfeld and Lützen (1631–1632). His accounts of these battles are admirably clear and concise; but they are also thoroughly familiar and offer no new insights. One may even reproach him for a kind of blindness, since he never mentions the conscious purposes of the persons who planned and fought them, apparently assuming that their religious convictions, hopes, and fears had nothing to do with what happened.
I learned a lot, however, from what he says about the Battle of Assaye in India in 1803, with which he concludes the first part of his book. He uses it to show how the Gunpowder Revolution opened a wide gap between European and Asian efficacy in war. For the Battle of Assaye was where Sir Arthur Wellesley (later Duke of Wellington), in command of the East India Company’s British and sepoy troops, established his reputation by defeating a much larger Maratha force. The still youthful Wellesley prevailed by dint of reckless audacity, backed up by the superior tenacity and discipline of his soldiers.
The Battle of Assaye was, Boot tells us, “one of the two bloodiest engagements that the Duke of Wellington ever fought (Waterloo was the other), and the one of which he was proudest later in life.” It resulted in a substantial enlargement of British-administered territories in India, and marked the end of military competition between the East India Company and native Indian rulers.
I had supposed that Robert Clive’s earlier victory at Plassey in 1757 was the principal step in establishing British military supremacy in India. Boot does not even mention Plassey, but his account of Assaye makes it clear that Clive’s easy …