Reveries on the Art of War

Reveries on the Art of War

by Maurice de Saxe, Thomas R. Phillips

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At the age of twelve, Dresden-born Maurice de Saxe (1696–1750) entered the Saxon army, beginning a long and successful military career that culminated in his promotion to Marshal of France, where he retained full command of the main army in Flanders directly under Louis XV. Again and again, de Saxe achieved enormous victories over his enemies, becoming one of the greatest military leaders of the eighteenth century. Combining his memoirs and general observations with brilliant military thinking, Reveries on the Art of War was written in a mere thirteen days. Introducing revolutionary approaches to battles and campaigning at a time of changing military tactics and leadership styles, it stands as a classic of early modern military theory.
De Saxe's Reveries offered numerous procedural innovations for raising and training troops. His descriptions for establishing field camps were soon standard procedure. His ideas advanced weapon technology, including the invention of a gun specially designed for infantrymen and the acceptance of breech-loading muskets and cannons. De Saxe heightened existing battle formations by introducing a specific attack column that required less training, and he rediscovered a military practice lost since the ancient Romans — the art of marching in cadence. He even delved into the minds and emotions of soldiers on the battlefield, obtaining a deeper understanding of their daily motivations.
Written by a military officer of great acumen, Reveries on the Art of War has deeply impacted modern military tactics. Enduringly relevant, this landmark work belongs in the library of anyone interested in the history, tactics, and weapons of European warfare.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780486149370
Publisher: Dover Publications
Publication date: 12/27/2012
Series: Dover Military History, Weapons, Armor
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 128
File size: 2 MB

Read an Excerpt

Reveries on the Art of War

By Maurice de Saxe, Thomas R. Phillips.

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2007 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-14937-0



TROOPS are raised by enlistment with a fixed term, without a fixed term, by compulsion sometimes, and most frequently by tricky devices.

When recruits are raised by enlistment it is unjust and inhuman not to observe the engagement. These men were free when they contracted the enlistment which binds them, and it is against all laws, human or divine, not to keep the promises made to them. What happens when promises are broken? The men desert. Can one, with justice, proceed against them? The good faith upon which the conditions of enlistment were founded has been violated. Unless severe measures are taken, discipline is lost; and, if severe punishments are used, one commits odious and cruel acts. There are, however, many soldiers whose term of service is ended at the commencement of a campaign. The captains who wish to have their organizations complete retain them by force. This results in the grievance of which I am speaking.

The raising of troops by fraud is also an odious practice. Money is slipped secretly into the man's pocket and then he is told he is a soldier.

Raising troops by force is still worse. This is a public misfortune from which citizens and inhabitants of a country can only save themselves by bribery, and it is founded on shameful methods.

Argument for Conscription

Would it not be better to prescribe by law that every man, whatever his condition in life, should be obliged to serve his prince and his country for five years? This law could not be objected to, because it is natural and just that all citizens should participate in the defense of the nation. No hardship could result if they were chosen between the ages of twenty and thirty years. These are the years of relative freedom of action, so far as the individual is concerned, when youth seeks its fortune, travels, and is of little comfort to parents. This would not be a public calamity because one could be sure that, when five years had passed, discharge would be granted.

This method of raising troops would provide an inexhaustible reservoir of fine recruits who would not be so much inclined to desert. In course of time, as a consequence, it would be regarded as an honor to have completed one's military service. But to produce this effect it is essential to make no distinctions, to be immovable on this point and to enforce the law particularly on the nobles and the rich. Then, no one will complain. Consequently, those who have served their time will scorn those who are reluctant to obey the law, and insensibly it will become an honor to serve. The poor bourgeois will be consoled by the example of the rich, and the rich will not dare complain upon seeing the noble serve.

Arms is an honorable profession. How many princes have borne arms! Witness M. de Turenne [noted French general, 1611- 1675]. And how many officers have I seen serve in the ranks rather than live in indolence! Thus only effeminacy will make this law appear hard to some. But everything has a good and a bad side.



OUR uniform is not only expensive, but very uncomfortable; the soldier is neither well shod, clothed, nor quartered. The love of appearance prevails over attention to health, and this is one of the most important points demanding our attention. Long hair is an unseemly appendage of a soldier; and once the rainy season has arrived, his head is seldom dry.

As for his feet, it is not to be doubted that his stockings, shoes, and feet rot together, since he has no extra pairs to change; and even if he should have, they will be of little use to him because quickly he will be back in the same state. Thus the poor soldier is soon sent to the hospital. White leggins spoil in washing, are good only for reviews, are inconvenient and harmful, of no real use, and very expensive.

The hat soon loses its shape and cannot resist the mistreatment of a campaign. Soon it no longer sheds rain, and as soon as the soldier lies down it falls off. The soldier, worn out with fatigue, sleeps in the rain and dew with his head uncovered and the next day has a fever.

Helmets Better Than Hats

In place of hats, I should prefer helmets. They do not weigh more than hats, are not at all uncomfortable, protect from a saber blow, and are sufficiently ornamental.

I should like to have the soldier clothed in a jacket, a little large, with a small one under it, something like a vest, and a Turkish coat with an attached hood. These coats cover a man well and do not contain more than two ells and one half of cloth. They are light and cheap.

The soldier will have his head and neck covered from the rain and wind. Lying down, he will be relatively dry because these clothes are not tight. When wet they will dry quickly in fair weather.

It is quite different with the present uniform. As soon as it is wet, the soldier feels it to the skin, and it must be dried on him. One need not, therefore, be astonished to see so much disease in the army. The strongest resist the longest, but in the end they usually succumb. If one adds to what I have said the service that those who are well are obliged to do in place of the sick, the dead, the wounded, and the deserters, it is not astonishing to see battalions reduced to a hundred men at the end of a campaign. That is how the smallest things influence the greatest.

Shoes Instead of Boots

As for shoes, I would prefer the soldiers to have shoes of thin leather with low heels, instead of heavy boots. They would be perfectly shod and would march with better grace, since the low heels would force them to turn their toes out, stretch their joints, and consequently, draw in their shoulders. The shoes should be worn on the bare feet and the feet greased with tallow or fat. This may sound strange, but the French veterans did this, for experience proved that they never blistered their feet, and water did not soak the shoes easily on account of the grease. On the other hand the leather did not get hard and hurt the feet.

The Germans, who make their infantry wear woolen stockings, have always had numbers crippled by blisters, ulcers, and all sorts of diseases of the feet and legs, because wool is poisonous to the skin. Besides, these stockings soon break through the toes, remain wet, and rot with the feet.

To keep the feet dry, wooden sandals should be added to the footwear. This will keep the shoes from getting wet in the mud and dew and when on duty—a great nuisance and resulting in illnesses. In dry weather, for combat and for drill, they would not be used.



AS I WOULD divide my troops into centuries, a sutler should be detailed for each century. He should have four wagons drawn by two oxen each and should be provided with a large kettle to hold soup for the whole century. Every man would receive his portion in a wooden dish, together with boiled meat at noon and roast meat at night. It should be the officers' duty to see that they are not imposed on and have no occasion for complaint.

The profit allowed the sutlers would come from the sale of liquor, cheese, tobacco, and the skins from the cattle they killed. The sutlers should provide food for the cattle, and when the army is near forage they would be given the necessary orders for obtaining it.

It might appear difficult to arrange this at first. But with a little care everyone would be satisfied. When soldiers are detached in small parties they could carry two days' supply of roast meat with them, without encumbrance. The quantity of wood, water, and kettles to make soup for a hundred men is more than' would be sufficient for a thousand the way I propose, and the soup made in the customary manner is never as good. Besides, the soldiers eat all sorts of unhealthy things, such as pork and unripe fruit, which make them ill. The officer would only have to watch a single kitchen, that of the sutler, and an officer should always be present at each meal to see that the soldiers had no cause for complaint.

On forced marches, when the baggage could not be brought up, cattle would be distributed to the troops. Wooden spits could be made and the meat roasted. This would not be inconvenient and would only last a few days. Let my method and the former one be balanced. I am persuaded that mine will be found the better.

The Turks do this and they are perfectly well nourished. One can tell their cadavers, after battles, from the German's, which are pale and emaciated. This has at times another advantage; the soldier's money may be saved by giving them their entire pay and selling their food to them. There are certain countries, like Poland and Germany, where cattle abound. Contributions are demanded from the inhabitants and, to enable them to sustain them, they are taken half in food and half in money. The food is sold to the soldiers; thus their pay is in continual circulation, and one has money as well as contributions, an important consideration.

Biscuits Better Than Bread

Soldiers should never be given bread in the field, but should be accustomed to biscuit, because it will keep for fifty years or more in depots and a soldier can easily carry a fifteen days' supply of it. It is healthy; one needs only inquire of the officers who served with the Venetians to learn the advantages of biscuit. The Russian biscuit, called soukari, is the best of all because it does not crumble; it is square and of convenient size. Fewer wagons are needed to carry it than bread.

Soldiers at times should be accustomed to do without biscuit and should be given grain and taught to cook it on iron plates, after having ground and made it into paste with water. Marshal Turenne said something about this in his Memoirs.

I have heard of great captains who, even when they had bread, did not allow the troops to eat it, so as to accustom them to do without it. I have made eighteen-month campaigns with troops who were habituated to do without bread and without hearing complaints. I have made several others with troops who were accustomed to it, and they could not do without it. Let bread be lacking a single day and there was trouble. The result was that not a step ahead could be taken, nor any bold march.

Vinegar for Hearth

I should not omit to mention here a custom of the Romans by which they prevented the diseases that attack armies with changes of climate. A part of their amazing success can be attributed to it. More than a third of the German armies perished upon arrival in Italy and in Hungary. In the year 1718 we entered the camp at Belgrade with 55,000 men. It is on a height, the air is healthy, the spring water good, and we had plenty of everything. On the day of battle, August 18, there were only 22,000 men under arms; all the rest were dead or unable to fight.

I could produce similar instances among other nations. It is the change of climate that causes it. There were no such examples among the Romans as long as they had vinegar. But just as soon as it was lacking they were subject to the same misfortunes that our troops are at present. This is a fact to which few persons have given any attention, but which, however, is of great consequence for the conquerors and their success. As for how to use it, the Romans distributed several days' supply among their men by order, and each man poured a few drops in his drinking water. I leave to the doctors the discovery of the causes of such beneficial effects; what I report is unquestionable.



WITHOUT going into detail about the different rates of pay, I shall say only that it should be ample. It is better to have a small number of well-kept and well-disciplined troops than to have a great number who are neglected in these matters. It is not big armies that win battles; it is the good ones. Economy can be pushed only to a certain point. It has limits beyond which it degenerates into parsimony. If your pay and allowances for officers will not support them decently, then you will only have rich men who serve for pleasure or adventure or indigent wretches devoid of spirit.

For the first I have little use because they can stand neither discomfort nor the rigor of discipline. Their talk is always seditious, and they are nothing but frank libertines. As for the others, they are so depressed that one can expect no great virtue in them. Their ambition is limited because advancement hardly. Interests them; and worse, they prefer to retain whatever rank they have, especially when promotion is an expense.

Inspiration in Hope and Poverty

Hope encourages men to endure and attempt everything; in depriving them of it, or in making it too distant, you deprive them of their very soul. It is essential that the captain should be better paid than the lieutenant, and so for all grades. The poor gentleman should have the moral surety of being able to succeed by his acts and his services. When all these things are taken care of you can maintain the most austere discipline among the troops.

Truly, the only good officers are the poor gentlemen who have nothing but their sword and their cape, but it is essential that they should be able to live on their pay. The man who devotes himself to war should regard it as a religious order into which he enters. He should have nothing, know no other concern than his troop and should hold himself honored in his profession.

In France, a young noble considers himself badly treated by the court if a regiment is not confided to him at the age of eighteen or twenty years. This practice destroys all spirit of emulation in the rest of the officers and in the poor nobility, who are almost certain never to command a regiment, and, in consequence, to gain the more important posts wherein glory is a recompense for the trouble and suffering of a laborious life to which they are willing to sacrifice themselves if confident of a flattering and distinguished career.

I do not argue by this that no preference should be shown to some princes or others of illustrious rank, but it is essential that these marks of preference should be justified by distinguished merit.



DRILL is necessary to make the soldier steady and skillful, although it does not warrant exclusive attention. Among all the elements of war it is even the one that deserves the best, if one excepts those which are dangerous.

The foundation of training depends on the legs and not the arms. All the mystery of maneuvers and combats is in the legs, and it is to the legs that we should apply ourselves. Whoever claims otherwise is but a fool and possessor only of elementary knowledge of what is called the profession of arms.

The question whether war is a trade or a science is defined very well by Chevalier Follard. He said: "War is a trade for the ignorant and a science for the expert."



THIS is a broad subject and I propose to deal with it in a manner so different from respected custom that shall probably expose myself to ridicule. But to lessen the danger, I shall explain the present method. This is no small affair, for I could compose a big volume on it.

I shall begin with the march, and this makes it necessary to say something that will appear highly extravagant to the ignorant. No one knows what the ancients meant by the word tactics. Nevertheless, many military men use this word constantly and believe that it is drill or the formation of troops for battle. Everyone has the march played without knowing how to use it. And everyone believes that the noise is a military ornament.

We should have a better opinion of the ancients and of the Romans, who are our masters in warring and who deserve to be. It is absurd to imagine that their martial music, trumpet calls and the like had no purpose other than to confuse the soldiers.


Excerpted from Reveries on the Art of War by Maurice de Saxe, Thomas R. Phillips.. Copyright © 2007 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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