Military History

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Book Review of The Dutch Army and the Military Revolutions, 1588-1688

Posted by William Young on May 20, 2012

Olaf van Nimwegen. The Dutch Army and the Military Revolutions, 1588-1688. Translated by Andrew May. Warfare in History series. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2010. ISBN 978-1-84383-575-2. Illustrations. Maps. Appendices. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xx, 577. $130.00.

Dr Olaf van Nimwegen, an Affiliated Researcher in International and Political History at the Research Institute for History and Culture at the University of Utrecht, is quickly making a name for himself in Dutch military history in the early modern era.  He is the author of De Republiek der Verenigde Nederlanden als grote mogendheid [The Republic of the United Netherlands as a Great Power] (2004) which examines the role of the Dutch Republic in the European states system from 1713 to 1756.  Now he gives us an important study of the Dutch army from the late sixteenth to the late seventeenth centuries.  This work on the Dutch army was originally published in the Dutch language as “Deser landen crijchsvolck”: Het Staatse leger en de militaire revoluties 1588-1688 in 2006.

In this study Nimwegen argues that the Dutch army is paramount to all discussions on the so-called Military Revolution concerning tactical, strategic, and organizational changes during Early Modern Europe.  His work examines the changes in tactics and organization of the Dutch army over a century.  The author stresses that the Dutch army underwent two military revolutions from 1588 to 1688.  As such, he breaks up his work into two parts that contain both chronological and thematic discussions.

The first part looks at the Dutch military during its struggle for independence from Spain in the late sixteenth century to the end of the Eighty Years’ War (1568-1648).  Nimwegen examines the organization of the Dutch army, the revolution in infantry tactics (the development of an orderly volley fire with firearms), field operations (including logistics and siege warfare), and military operations against Spain in the Low Countries.  The author depicts how the Dutch army transformed from an unreliable band of mercenaries into a disciplined military that held its own against the power of Spain.  Under the leadership of Maurits of Nassau and his cousin Willem Lodewijk, a tactical revolution, concerning the use of volley fire, was achieved that had a profound impact on battle.  But, the author points out the mutual distrust between the government and the Dutch army over military finances, which greatly hampered the recruitment, payment, and provisioning of troops. The lack of trust contributed to the inadequate organization structure of the Dutch army, the small size of the army, and the limited deployment of military forces.  Troop concentrations rarely reached a maximum of 25,000 to 30,000 men within the Dutch borders (p.294).  The Dutch Republic continued to rely on mercenaries and military entrepreneurs throughout the Eighty Years’ War.

In the second part of this study, Nimwegen addresses the Dutch army from the Peace of Westphalia (1648) to the outbreak of conflict with France in the Nine Years’ War (1688-97).  He notes that in the 1660s France underwent developments that led to a revolution in military organization, resulting in a massive expansion of the French army and its military potential.  Louis XIV’s France was the leading military power in Europe.  This military might was used against coalitions in the Wars of Louis XIV (1667-1713).  In the first conflict, the War of Devolution (1667-68), France quickly conquered most of the Spanish Netherlands.  In the second conflict, the Dutch War (1672-78), Louis XIV led the French army that invaded and promptly occupied half of the Dutch Republic.  The French threat and invasion led to the Dutch Republic making numerous changes.  Nimwegen shows that the Dutch army had to undergo its own organizational revolution to defend itself against the military might of France.  He writes: “It was not until the ‘struggle for survival’ (Existenzkampf), in which the Republic became entangled because of the French invasion in 1672, that a climate was created which made far-reaching structural reforms in the Dutch army possible.  At an astonishing speed the Republic’s land forces were then transformed from an army of mercenaries into a standing army of professional soldiers” (p.518).  The Dutch government, with the Province of Holland taking the lead, provided the financial resources to recruit, equip, pay, and feed a large-scale, professional standing army under the command of Prince William III of Orange.  This army adopted French innovations, including the establishment and use of supply magazines, advanced techniques in siege warfare, and the employment of modern military arms and equipment, resulting in an “organizational revolution” in the conduct of war.  The Dutch army, along with other coalition operations against Louis XIV, forced France to withdraw from the United Provinces in 1673.  The Dutch Republic kept and improved its standing army after the conflict because it could not afford to fight another lengthy war against Louis XIV without being prepared.

Nimwegen’s study is the first major work on the Dutch army during the Military Revolution of Early Modern Europe in the English language.  It is based largely on primary sources from various archives throughout the Netherlands.  The work is well-written and will be the definitive study on the Dutch army during this period for a long time to come.  This study is highly recommended for individuals interested in the Eighty Years’ War, Dutch War, and the military history of Early Modern Europe.

Dr William Young
University of North Dakota
Grand Forks, North Dakota

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