Time to give Hans Delbrück’s work an honorable burial?

by Scott Manning on March 12, 2014


In previous articles, we covered how historians have heaped praise upon Hans Delbrück and why that praise was warranted. However, it would be misleading to leave out the fact that many of Delbrück’s principles have not maintained any prominence in military history whatsoever.

For example, he believed that historians should only focus on history where “the source material begins to provide a full and valid glimpse into the events.”1 Aside from obscure campaigns and battles throughout history, this singles out what Delbrück called the “twilight of the prehistoric era,” or anything prior to the Greco-Persian Wars.2 Numerous military historians influenced by Delbrück have had no issues venturing into areas that require cross-disciplinary help from anthropology and archaeology to decipher the history of Egyptian and Assyrian battles and campaigns. For example, John Keegan’s A History of Warfare (1994) started with the beginnings of warfare with cave art, and Keegan went out of his way to focus on obscure people such as Easter Islanders and the pre-colonial Aztecs. Brian Todd Carey’s Warfare in the Ancient World (2005) dedicates an entire chapter to the Bronze Age. Finally, Azar Gat’s War in Human Civilization (2006) would have been much shorter if he followed Delbrück’s principle.

Delbrück’s critics

Then there are Delbrück’s critics—both contemporary and modern—who appear to be few in number, but are more than thorough and stinging in their analysis.

For example, in reviewing Delbrück’s medieval volume in 1907, British historian T. F. Tout (1855-1929) softened his criticism by praising the audacity of Delbrück for tackling such a large subject and being “a most successful inspirer of work in others.”3 However, Tout ultimately concluded the “book can hardly be accepted as a definitive treatise on the art of war in the middle ages” and was “not likely to hold a permanent place in the literature of the subject.”4

Aside from minor quibbles, Tout’s main criticism focused on the overarching thesis that “military science ends with the Romans and begins again with the Renaissance.”5 Just about any current medievalist would scoff at this notion. As for the method, Tout believed “selecting a big battle here and there and studying it in isolation is not one that is likely to produce satisfactory results.”6 Further, Tout believed the selections were “arbitrary” at best, excluding important battles.7 As a British historian, Tout was no doubt unimpressed with Delbrück’s complete exclusion of the War of the Roses (1455-1485).

Another historian who believes that Delbrück’s “choice of significant battles was arbitrary” is J. F. Verbruggen.8 In his tome The Art of Warfare in Western Europe During the Middle Ages (1954), Verbruggen focuses heavily on the work of Delbrück, attesting to the latter’s influence in military history. While complimentary toward many of his principles such as judging ancient and medieval estimates, Verbruggen believes he “had read too few sources personally.”9 Worse, he “never minutely studied a pitched battle, which is a serious defect” in his work.10 Verbruggen cites Delbrück often, mainly to tear down his conclusions on medieval warfare.

More recent and even more damning is the call by medievalist Bernard S. Bachrach for Delbrück’s work to “be given an honorable burial,” which Bachrach believes “is of no value for the medieval period and often is seriously misleading.”11 By the late-twentieth century, medieval military historians were moving away from books full of battle accounts and instead focusing on sieges, the most common trait of medieval warfare. Regardless of whether Delbrück’s selection was arbitrary, focusing predominately on battles “did a substantial disservice to our understanding of a millennium of European history.”12

Bachrach does not stop there, dedicating an entire article to the takedown of Delbrück’s work. Unlike Tout and Verbruggen, Bachrach does not soften any of this criticism, pointing out how Delbrück applied even his most useful principles inconsistently. For example, in the realm of troop estimates “Delbrück almost obsessively rejects very large numbers provided by narrative sources,” but “he ostensibly accepts immense figures regarding the Roman and Carthaginian forces which engaged at the battle of Cannae in 216 B.C.”13 In addition, although Bachrach concedes Delbrück’s methodology made it easier to reject estimates in the millions and hundreds of thousands, he believes it falls short when dealing with smaller numbers.14 More specifically, Bachrach takes issue with Delbrück’s assertion that medieval armies were often smaller compared to ancient armies.15

Bachrach also criticizes Delbrück’s assertion that Charlemagne never yielded more than 10,000 troops, which was based on Delbrück’s insistence that the barter system meant smaller armies and the logistics were weakened by illiteracy.16 During Delbrück’s lifetime, scholars proved that the Carolingians were not using the barter system and were more literate than originally believed.17

Tout, Verbruggen, and Bachrach all touch on Delbrück’s seemingly arbitrary selection of battles. Bachrach touches on his troop estimates. Yet others have identified both of these as one of Delbrück’s main contributions, namely he introduced and “applied the same systematic methods to the numerical records of every war from the Persian Wars to those of Napoleon.”18 However, it is clear that Delbrück’s selection of battles was hardly complete and the application of his own methods was inconsistent, sometimes ignoring available research.

Ultimately, Bachrach wants to see “Delbrück’s work on this subject to be consigned to a chapter in the history of history writing.”19 While his and others’ criticisms are valid, Bachrach may not see Delbrück disappear in the near future.

The next article will examine the staying power of Delbrück.


  1. Hans Delbrück, History of the Art of War, 4 vols., trans. Walter J. Renfroe, Jr. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990), 1:17. []
  2. Ibid. []
  3. T. F. Tout, Review of Geschichte der Kriegskunst imm Bahmen der po!itischen Geschichtc, by Hans Delbrück, The English Historical Review 22, no. 86 (April 1907): 344. []
  4. Ibid., 348. []
  5. Ibid., 345. []
  6. Ibid., 346. []
  7. Ibid., 347. []
  8. J. F. Verbruggen, The Art of War in Western Europe During the Middle Ages: From the Eighth Century to 1340, 2nd ed., trans. Sumner Willard (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 1997), 3. []
  9. Ibid. []
  10. Ibid., 10. []
  11. Bernard S. Bachrach, “Medieval Siege Warfare: A Reconnaissance,” The Journal of Military History 58 (Jan 1994): 119n1. []
  12. Ibid., 122. []
  13. Bernard S. Bachrach, “Early Military Demography: So Observations on the Methods of Hans Delbrück,” in The Circle of War in the Middle Ages, eds. Donald J. Kagay and L. J. Andrew Villalon (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 1999), 8. []
  14. Ibid., 9. []
  15. Ibid., 10-14. []
  16. Ibid., 17-18. []
  17. Ibid., 19. []
  18. Gordon A. Craig, “Delbrück: The Military Historian,” in Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age, ed. Peter Parat (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), 334. []
  19. Bachrach, “Early Military Demography,” 20. []

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Alex March 13, 2014 at 6:06 AM

he believed that historians should only focus on history where “the source material begins to provide a full and valid glimpse into the events.”

This is just a statement that he was a Rankean historian, though. Much more so, he was one who literally lived at the same time as von Ranke and it’s possible, even likely, that they met. His partner in the Monatshefte, von Treitschke, succeeded to von Ranke’s professorship after his death. Source-criticism and archival research were the latest technology at the time Delbrück wrote.


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