Bachrach — Warfare in 10C Germany


David S. Bachrach

Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany

Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2012. xiv and 310 pp. $99.00 ISBN 978-1-84383-762-7.


9781843837626David Bachrach analyzes warfare during the reigns of the German kings Henry I (919-936) and Otto I (936-973).  In a military history survey that ranges from the specifics of weaponry and tactics to the economic and bureaucratic underpinnings of a militarized society, he takes an untraditional view of the early Holy Roman Empire.  Nineteenth- and early twentieth-century German historians had described a tenth-century heroic triumph of German virtues and institutions.  In reaction, a “new constitutional history” beginning in the 1930s, flourishing after World War II, and, according to Bachrach, still holding sway today (p. 2), sees tenth-century Saxon kings ruling by limited and crude applications of military force, compensating for woefully primitive bureaucracy through sacral kingship and symbolism, ultimately offering “kingship without a state.”  Bachrach, on the contrary, describes  a sophisticated system of military organization, the largest social expenditure (p. 102), whose accomplishments are said to presuppose literate, sophisticated systems of education and bureaucracy owing much to the Carolingian and ultimately to the Roman world.   Although David Bachrach and his father Bernard S. Bachrach have been engaging in this revisionism for many years, systematic studies of pre-crusade German military history are actually quite rare, making this a welcome book.

The first two narrative chapters describe the military strategies of Henry I, seeking to restore East Francia, and Otto I, seeking to forge a new empire.  Far from the heavily annotated evaluations of scholarship familiar from the many editions of the Handbuch der deutschen Geschichte, these chapters present the testimony of the relatively limited number of primary sources, supplementing them with archaeological data and minimal commentary.  The goal is to offer a general framework.  These chapters are supported by an appendix on ”Major Military Operations by Henry I, Otto I, and Their Commanders” (pp. 257-61).

The following six thematic chapters describe military organization, military education, arms and training, morale, tactics on the battlefield, and the campaign strategy involved in the civil war of 953-54.  Sometimes thematic chapters have the logical coherence of a laundry list, but here Bachrach progresses from abstract subjects toward concrete applications and illustrations.  The penultimate chapter vii, on tactics, actually analyzes the specific tactics employed in four battles:  Lenzen (Henry I vs. Slavic rebels, 929), Riade (Henry I vs. the Hungarians, 933), Mantahinga (Ulrich of Augsburg vs. Arnulf of Bavaria, 954), and Recknitz (Otto vs. Slavic Obodrites, 955).  The final chapter viii on strategy, uses as a case study the empire-wide civil war between Otto and powerful rebels who included his son Liudolf, who moved into Bavaria; Duke Conrad the Red, most recently of Lotharingia; Archbishop Frederick of Mainz; the count Palatine Arnulf, who operated in Swabia; and interested outsiders such as Hungarians and Italian rebels.

Among the themes developed are “defense in depth,” the claim that East Francian fortifications were carefully planned not to seal off borders but to channel invaders, to slow them, to complicate retreats.  Whereas from a Western Civilization textbook perspective, the “clash of civilizations” narrative featuring dramatic battles with the Eurasian Magyars might seem to be the central story here, lists of engagements and alliances suggest that “defense in depth”  more often involved the Slavs, whose military training and preparations were sometimes on par with their German adversaries.  Bachrach also stresses, especially in chapter iii, the continuity in structure between Saxon and Carolingian armies, each including multilevel forces of local levies, select levies, and professional soldiers particularly associated with military households, most importantly with the royal military household.  He emphasizes continuity with Rome as seen in the use of Vegetius and other military manuals.

While David Bachrach does find “tactical flexibility” to be “the hallmark of Ottonian field armies” (p. 224), he believes that scholars such as Karl Leyser have overemphasized the importance of Saxon heavy cavalry.  He acknowledges the decisive importance of cavalry on certain occasions, but emphasizes that this was a world where the primary goal was “the capture or defense of fortress cities or lesser fortifications.” (pp. 252), and in these engagements fighters on horseback were relatively useless.  Yet it is noteworthy that he rarely speaks about “harassing” or describes the destruction of enemy resources as a primary aim.  When, for example, Otto invaded Bavaria in 953 with an army too small to besiege Regensburg, he still wound up spending three months in the region, seizing food and fodder from the rebels and their allies (p. 243). Perhaps the relative mobility and invulnerability of heavy cavalry may have been more important than Bachrach indicates.

David Bachrach sees military engagements under Henry and Otto as involving “very large armies, numbering in the range of 20,000-25,000 men, at a minimum, to besiege the great fortress cities.” (p.253).   Logistical support would have required many more people.  Some scholars may suspect circularity in arguments that walls must have been adequately manned and therefore besieging armies must have had adequate numbers to attack.  Yet Bachrach’s detailed explications of military training, planning, and coordination certainly reveal a military organization more complex and sophisticated than the some traditional denigrations of the Saxon monarchy suggest.


John Howe

Texas Tech University <JOHN.HOWE@ttu.edu>


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