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Bayonets for Hire: Mercenaries at War, 1550–1789

by William Urban, Greenhill Books, London, 2007, $39.95.

“No one likes mercenaries. Yet everyone has used them.” Thus the preface sets the tone for this study. Known for his works on the Teutonic Order and the medieval Baltic crusades, Urban distinguishes the later-model mercenaries by their professionalism. The Middle Ages ended, Urban declares, when professionals took over everywhere—above all in war. On the one hand, the modern nationalistic state did not exist. On the other, the growth of contractual relationships had eroded feudal ties. There was no reason for an ambitious man with a marketable skill not to seek the most favorable terms for using it.

Urban defines “mercenaries” broadly, including soldiers of fortune as well as religious and political exiles: the French Huguenots and the Wild Geese of Ireland. They comprise bodies of men recruited by particular officers for specific service and, eventually, entire armies leased by their rulers to foreign states for cash subsidies. The author almost categorizes as mercenaries those subjects of a state who join its army from ambition, hunger or desire for adventure.

The book is as much a study of early modern European warfare as a story of the men who fought it. Particularly useful is its survey of events in Eastern and Southern Europe. As go-anywhere, do-anything fighters with state-of-the-art skills, mercenaries were especially welcome in the polyglot armies that rolled back the Ottoman Empire from the gates of Vienna in 1683 and repeatedly changed balance of power east of the Oder River.

Western Europe, however, was the classic venue of the mercenaries, and their heyday was the Thirty Years’ War. Urban vividly describes the havoc that armies for hire wrought on still-fragile economic, social and political structures. By war’s end in 1648, arguably the safest and most stable life for ordinary men—and often women as well—was in the ranks of a mercenary regiment or among its train of followers. The glamour once attached to military service had been replaced by a determination, shared by rulers and their subjects, that never again could war be allowed to burst its bonds. Never again could soldiers be allowed to run amok. Henceforth, mercenaries in Western Europe, individuals and units alike, would serve in armies raised, paid and controlled by governments.

Urban does not romanticize the mercenaries. Their distinguishing characteristic was expendability. Hired for a particular campaign, they stood to be peremptorily dismissed at its close. Like Woody Guthrie’s migrants of a later era, mercenaries came with the dust and were gone with the wind, no one mourning their passing. Small wonder that they were as prone to mutiny over back pay as to engage an enemy. They were casually destructive, with irreducible appetites for plunder. Mercenary commanders kept wars going for profit. The military future belonged to those states able to consolidate sufficient power and mobilize sufficient funds to permanently maintain their own armies.


Originally published in the December 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here