War and Social Upheaval: Important Military Organizations

Figure 1.--This Hitler Youth (HJ) boy is trying out a glider he built. Older boys would fly gliders. The HJ had a special division for boys interested in aviation--the Flieger HJ. Most would join the Luftwaffe after completing the program and would have acquired considerable skills through the program. This photograph ids undated, but was probably taken in the 1930s before the War. Notice the boy's HJ knife.

There have in history not only been wars and battles of great importance, but ther have also been military organizations that played a major role in history. The most obvious was the Roman Legion which for centuries served as the foundation of the Pax Romana and the Roman Empire. The Mongol armies dominated much of Asia, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe for centuries. The British Royal Navy played a key role in the establishment of the modern world. One force that might not easily come to mind is the Grand Army of the Republic, the army created by the U.S. Federal Government to win the American Civil War. In the 20th century there were numerous military forces of considerable importance, including the American Navy, the Wehrmacht, the Luftwaffe, the Red Army, and the Japanese Navy were of great importance. Military forces are designed to project a country's power. Ironically, some powerful military forces can ultimately prove to actually reduce a country's security. The best example here is Kaiser Wilhelm's highseas fleet.

The Greek Hoplites

The Greeks divided into small city states invented a new way of fighting (about 650 BC). The new tactics gave the Greeks with a relatively small population a way of genberating military power when facing larger more populace countries like Egypt, Lydia, and eventually the vast Persian Empire. Ancirnt fighting has been described, perhaps unkinfly, as fighting in a disorganized mob. The Greeks developed a more disciplined tactic of fighting in rigid lines, composed of highly trained soldiers locked together, shoulder to shoulder. The men were protected by the shield of the man standing next to him. When the Greel soldiers moved forward, the spears and arrows of enemies had difficulty penetrating the wall of shields. The Greek soldiers were called hoplites. Units of these soldiers were called hoplite phalanxes. A hoplite phalanx provedc to be a formidable military formation. There were weakness. The men had to be thoroughly trained. There could be no weak linkks. Only a small number breaking ranls would cause the phalanxes to desintegratede. The men gad to nmoive at the same speed. And the phalank was not very manueverable or flexible. It moved well forward over flat terraine, , but other movements over broken terraine were much more difficult. The hopelites and phalanes reached their greatest development under Alexandr the Great, perhaps the greatest military commanddr of all time.

The Roman Legions

The most obvious important military force in history and the longest lasting is the Roman Legions which is today seen by many as the prototype for modern militaries. Any list of important hitorical fighting forces has to include the Roman Legions. The Legions was the force that secured the territoy of the Roman Empire and mintained it for more than half a millenium. One author writes, "The Legions of Rome shine in the annals of military history." Today we refer to the legions which is actually a term for a unit. ThecRomans had no term for their army as a whole. The Romans instead spoke only of 'the soldiers'. [James] The Legions were for centuries the foundation of the Pax Romana and the Roman Empire. Rome's legions were the most effective military mchine of the ancient world. The Legions were composed of soldiers who fought fiercely abnd were well armed. The Legioins under first the Republic and then the Emperor were the tip of the spear that spread Roman power and in its wake Roman civilization around the known world. The central force of a Roman legion was heavily armored and disciplined infantry. The Legionaries armed with the gladiusn fought in closely formed ranks against many disperate forces. The most dangerous opponent was Carthage. Many other opponents were less disciplined warrior-based military forces. The discipline, tatics, and tenacity of the Legions were able to defeat often much larger armies. In the end the key to the Legions' success was its ability to come to grips with an opposing force and bring steel forward in a highly efficent killing machine. Is is perhaps ironic that perhaps the single greates aspect of Roman culture that arived in the wake of the Legioins was Roman law. And here the Legions were effective not only because of raw military power, but because the conquered were integrated into the Empire through effective diplomscy and the rule of law. Large numbers of subgegated people became Roman citizens, often through military service in the Lefions that had conquered them. [James] After conquest, violence was largely restricted to the frontiers, except for occassional revolts, most notably the Jewish Revolt.

Mongol Army

The largest empire in world history is that of the Mongols, actually dwarfing that of Alexander and Rome. The Mongols in the West are often described as the "Mongol hordes", suggesting they gained their victories by overwealming numbers. In fact the Mongols often prevailed over much larger opposing military forces. They did, however, amass very large armies, probably up to 50,000-100,000, some report even larger forces. While the Mongols were a generally primitive nomadic people, they developed highly innovative military tactics. The Mongols developed very effective forms of battlefield communications (a system of horns and flags). This and the mobility provided by mounted warriors provided an element of speed that their opponents could not match. Mongol warriors traveled light and carried little in the way of supplies. They could survive on their horses' blood and a dried milk paste. Mongol units might move 10 days without stopping to camp and make fire to prepare food. Their mobility and endurance was a major factor in the Mongol's ability in many cases of defeating much larger armies. There were many other innovations. The Mongols had experienced subcommanders with the authority to make field decisions on the spot depending on battlefield conditions. This was critical for a military force based on light calvary. The mongol calvary were archers and light swordsmen. The Mongol calvary acted not unlike the German Panzers in World War II. They had the force to break through enemy lines and surround large infantry forces. The Mongols in contrast were never dependant on a supply trail, they lived on the land. They were more numerous and faster than any heavy calvary forces they encountered. This meant that they could choose when and where to strike and were able to better control their forces with their superior battlefield communications. The archers gave them the ability to strike opposing heavy calvary at a distance. The Mongols did not have metal armour, but rather silk clothing and padded protection which gave them greater fredom of movement and was surprisingly effective.

The Royal Navy

The Royal Navy was founded by Henry VIII in the 16th century and four the next four centuries has played a central role in modern history. It is no exageration to say that Royal Navy was the critical force in the creation of the modern world. The Royal Navy is common seen as an instrument of British colonialism and the suppression of many Asian and african peoples. This is certainly true. It is also true that the Royal Navy helped establish the modern world trading system. It broke up the closed international system established by Spain and Portugal and replaced it with a much more open system. The Royal Navy impact on the modern world is extensive and pervasive. The Royal Navy chartered sea lanes around the world. There are few ports and sea coasts that have not been touched in some way by the Royal Navy. The Royal Navy played an important role in the Indistrial Revolution. It helped to defeat series of opponents for the most part countries goverened by authoritarian or dictatorial rulers (Philip II, Louis XIV, Napoleon, Kaiser Wilhelm II, and Hitler). Thus the Royal Navy played a key role in establishing parlimentary democracies in the modern world. It was the Royal Navy that ended the slave trade. Although the Royal Navy played a major role in the Revolutionary war, it is also true that for much of the early history, the Royal Navy provided a shield from European interference behind which the American Republic developed. The prestige of the Royal Navy by the 19th century was such that the uniform of the British enlisted sailor became a standard outfit not only for British boys, but also for boys throughout Europe and North America.

Prussian Army

The Germans had a long martial tradition. They could have potentially dominsted Europe, but throughout the medival era was divided within the Holy Roman Empire. As a result, Frrance emerged as the majofr European power. With the Protestant Reformation, Prussia begining in Brandenurg began its rise as the most powerful German state. But Brandenburg-Prussia was one of the pooest regiins of Germany. Thus Prussia developed fifferently. Prussia became described as not a country with an army, but an army with a country. An immense portion of the national income was devoted to maintsining its army. Prussian leaders maintained aarge standing army. This gave the Prussians an advantage in the opening phase of a war and a valuable ally in any war. Prusian was not the only German state with an impressive army. Americans will be familiar with the Hessins hired by the British to assist supresing the American colonists in the Revolutionary War. Renting out mercinaries helped defray the significant costs of a standing army. Prussia's weak economy meant that the country's advantage was limited to a short war and deteriorated rapidly in any extended war. This simple fact thus became a mainstay in Prussian military doctrine. And part of that military dictrine=e was a rapid war of movement to close with and defeat enemy armies by concetrating forces before the adversary was fully prepared. The Prussian Arny became the core of the new Imperail German Army after the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). The Germany army prepared for a general European War by decising alan for a quick vicory and short war--the Schiliffen Plan. What is unclear to us is what happened in the Army's High Command that led to the attrocities committed by the Germany Army in Belgium.

The Grand Army of the Republic

One force that might not easily come to mind is the Grand Army of the Republic, the army created by the U.S. Federal Government to win the American Civil War.

The United States Navy

The American Navy appered during the Revolutionary War. Although it could not begin to cpmpete with the vast Royal Navy, it did help to raise the cost of the War to the British. It was also the only naval force able to gain victories against the Britisg in individual naval combat, a record it repeated in the Warof 1812. The American Navy disapeared after te Wr and was not revived again until the war with the Barbary pirates at the turn of the 19th century. America did not begin to build a professional force until the Naval Academy in anapolis was founded (18??). The Navy played a role in the Mexican War abnd the opening of Japan. The Navy's primary accomplishment in the 19th century was its part in blocakading the Confederacy as part of the Federal Anaconda Plan. It was the American Navy that first deployed a modern iron vessel--the Monitor. American did not, however, begin building a modern navy until President Cleveland's Administration, a process subsequemtly furthered by President T. Roosevelt. After World war I, the British Royal Navy was no longer able to play its traditional role in controling the seas. After Pear Harbor (1941), a new vastly expanded American Navy took on that role and played a major role in the defeat of Japanese militarism and European Fascism.

U.S. Marine Corps

The United States Marine Corps is in direct lineage to the British Royal Marines. The Continental Congress passed a resolution authorizing the raising of two battalions of Marines be raised (November 10, 1775). The Continental Navy proceeded to recruit mnarines for its vessels just like the Roiyal Navy did. After independence, the Marines were the infantry soldiers America deployed its first foreign war, the Batbary Wars with the Tripolitarin pirates ("the shores of Tripli"). Marines were heavily involved in numerous operations during the War of 1812, including land operations and aboard the frigates that engaged the Royal Navy. The Marines in the early-19th century were used to protected American interests around the world. During an era in which the United States was primarily concered with domestic develoment, the Marines were involved in activities around the world (the Caribbean, the Falkland Islands, Sumatra and off the coast of West Africa). They also were engaged in Florida against the Seminole Indians. The Mat\rines played a major role in the Mexican War (1846-48). Marines seized Nexican seaports and a battalion of Marines joined General Winfield Scott’s army at Pueblo. They helped fight their way into Mexico City, seizing the Chepultepec firtress ("the hlls of Montezumna". It was a Marine unit that Col. Robert E. Lee used to seize the Harper's Ferry Arsenal from John Browm (1859). The Marines were involved in the Civil War, but play a inor role. The Marines in the late-19th century saw action around the world, especially in the Far East and the Caribbean. The Marines were involved in the Spanish-American War (1898), the Boxer Rebellion (1900), and the Philippine Insurrection. There were a series of actions in the Caribbean (Nicaragua, Panama, The Dominican Republic, Cuba, Mexico and Haiti) during the earl-20th century. The Marine Corps was heavily involved in World War I, deployed with the American Expeditionry Force (AEF) as infantry in France. America declared war (April 1917), but the AEF did not begin to engage the Germans until April 1918. What followed was 6 months of intensive combat. The 4th Marine Brigade earned the title of "Devil Dogs" during fighting at Belleau Wood, Soissons, St. Michiel, Blanc Mont and the final Muesse-Argonne offensive. Marine aviation, was used for the first time in a close-air support role. More than 309,000 Marines served in France and more than a third were killed or wounded. The Marine Corps during the inter-War period developed its doctrine of amphibious warfare. It was the First Marine Division that staged Americ's first offensive operation of World war II--the invasion of Guadcabal (August 1942). It was the Marine Corpos that was the backbone of the CetralmPacific campaign that began at Tarawa (1943) and enbded at Okinawa and Iwo Jima (1945). Forthe first time draftees were assigned to the Mrine Corps. The Marine Corps played importantbroles in both Korea and Vietnam.


The Wehrmacht

The Wehrmacht was in the mind of many military historians the finest military force in modern history. It was also a vast criminal enterprise. Since the end of World War II there has been an effort to paint the Wehrmacht a a professional, not political force that was the victim of Hitler and the NAZIs. Nothing could be further from the truth. The German Army (tHe Reichwehr) became highly politicized following World War. Conspiracy theiries florished in the minds of officers and men who could not bring themselves to accept defeat. The leadership of the Reichwehr was never committed to German democracy and the Weimar Re;public. It should be rememvered that its was President Hindenburg, a Prussian Junker to the core, who brought Hitler to power. The faced with the threat of the NAZI SA, agreed to swear a personal oath of loyalty to Adolf Hitler. The Wehrmacht cooperated closely with the NAZIs to rearm Germany far beyonf that needed for defensive puroses. It is true that there was resistance with the Wehrmacht to Hitler's early aggressions, especially the seizure of the Sudetenland, but this was more out of fear that it would bring a disatrous war than the objectiion to the goal of seizing the German populated area. Hitler turned the Wehrmacht into his instrument of aggression, the invasion of neighboring countries and the seizure of their resources to support the German war mmachine. It was also the occupying military force estanlish the German conmtrol needed to conduct the Holacaust, a process that was to be continued with the Slavs in the East. It is true that the Holcaust itself was conducted by the SS and there were Wehrmacht officers who were horrified at NAZI attricities. It is also true that the Wehrmacht was deeply implicated in the Holocaust itself. And as the NAZI regime grew in strength, so did support for the NAZIs grow within the Wehrmacht. Only the impending defeat of Germany brought about an attempted, but failed coup (July 1944). The bulk of the Wehrmacht remained loyal to Hitler. The Wehrmacht's early success came because the German economy was converted to the production of a new generation of modern weapons effectively used in the concept of Blitzkrieg adopted by the Wehrmacht. The NAZI Party and Hitler Youth also effectively prepared young Germans for war. The Wehrmacht high-command did not resist the NAZIfication process. Many commanders subscribed to the syabbed-in-the-back" conspiracy theories. They saw NAZI indicrination as stiffening the backbone of the German soldier. The Wehrmacht's basic military concept was designed to use its superior equipment, supported by the Luftwaffe, and tactical doctrine to defeat opponents before they could adequately prepare. The NAZIs unfortunately for the Wehrmacht took the victories for a confirmation of the racial superority of the German people. Failure in the skies over Britain (1940) and before Moscow (1941) meant that two dangeous opponents were not defeated in quick lighting strokes. When Hitler inexplicably added America to German enemies, the fate of the Wehrmacht was sealed. Germany faced enemies who used the tactical doctrines Germany developed and backed them with far greater human and material resources.

The Luftwaffe

The Germans during World War I created an air arm during World War I (1914-18). The airplane was first used in any significant way in World war I. It played a useful, but marginal ole. The Allies were able to outproduce the Germans, but both side made important technological strides. The German air ace the Red Baron (von Rictoff) was the most famous pilot of the War. When he was killed, Herman Goering took over command of the the Flying Circus. The German air forces were dissolved after the War, as required by the Treaty of Versailles. Even so the German military continued to develop technology through secret arrangements with the foreign countries. German companies built planes in other countries, especially the Netherlands. Glider clubs throughout Germany provided training for future pilots. The operations were expanded when the NAZIs seized control (1933). Soviets and Japanese. Adolt Hiter ordered Göring to formally establish thevLuftwaffe (February 26, 1935). The Versailles Treatu was still in force.

The Red Army

The Red Army was founded by Leon Trotsky and emerged victorious in the Civil War that followed the Revolution (1917). It provided the victory when enabled the creation of the Soviet state and rulling Cimmunist Party. That Party under the command of Stalin turned on the Red Army in a series of purges launched in 1937. Here the NAZIs appeared to have played a role in inspiring the purges. As a result of the purges the Red Army was severely weakened. None-the-less under Zukov they defeated the Japanese in an undeclared border war with Japan (1939). The Red Army also along with the Wehrmacht occupied Poland (1939), fought a war with Finland (1939-40), occupied the Baltic republics (1940), and seized areas of Romania (1940). The central event in the history of the Red Army was of course the Great Patriotic War. Hitler ordered the invasion of the Soviet Union--Operation Barbarossa (June 1941). The resulting military campaign was the most titantic military struggle in human history. The Red Army weakened by Stalin's purges and inept leadership was staggered by the German blitzkrieg, but with the help of the Autumn rains and then the Winter freeze, the Wehrmachy was stopped before Leningrad and Moscow (December 1941). The German battle plan was based on lightening strikes before the opponent could adequately prepare for war. Failure first against Britain (1940) and then the Soviet Union (1941) meant that the Germans were faced with a long war of attrition and with the entry of America into the War, an alliance with superior resources. In the end it was the Red Army that stopped the Wehrmachtt and blead it to the point that the Western Allies could cross the Channel and attack the Wehrmacht from the west. After the War, the Red Army was the instrument by which the Soviet Union established a Russian empire throughout Eastern Europe--compliant satellite regimes creating Soviet style totalitarian regimes.

The Japanese Imperial Navy

The Japanese Imperial Navy (Nihon Kaigun) by 1941 was the dominant naval force in the Pacific. The Japanese had a large well-trained naby with excellent ships. There was no peace-time neglect as the British and U.S. navies experienced. The American Navy was aware that the Japanese had a modern effective navy, but did not fully understand the campabilities of the Imperal Navy or the danger posed by the sizeable carrier fleet. The Japanese Imperial fleet was superbly trained with outstanding night fighting capabilities. Not only was the fleet well trained and included modern vessels, many of the Japanese vessels and naval aircraft were supperior to American and British vessels in many aspects. Japan led the world in operational aircraft carriers and carrier aircraft. (The British in 1941 were still using Swordfish biplanes on their carriers and American planes, especially the fighters were slower and less manuerable. The Japanese Mitsubishi Type 00 fighter, the Zero, was both faster and more maneuverable than either the U.S. Navy carrier fighter, the Grumman F4F Wildcat. The full extent of the threat was in part obscured by American rascial sterotypes and wide-spread belief that the Imperial Navy was not an effective force. In reterospect, the only suprising question about the attack on Pear Harbor and Japanese offensive in the South Pscifiuc, is not how they succedded, but how America managed to stop the Japanese after only 6 months of victories. The two glaring weakeneses were the lack of radar and the ineffective fore supression systems. Not well understood is that Japan had a very substantial submarine fleet.

German Navy

Military forces are designed to project a country's power. Ironically, some powerful military forces can ultimately prove to actually reduce a country's security. The best example here is Kaiser Wilhelm's highseas fleet. Germany in the mid-19th century was seen by Briton's as an ally and France as a security threat. Rhe British royal family was of German origins. Prince Albert himself was German. This view was altered by Kaiser Wilhelm II's aggressive foreign policy and boisterous, eratic behavior. This revised view was confirmed by the Kaiser's decession to build a highseas fleet. The major impact of the fleet was to seek alliances with Russia and France, Germany's historic enenies. The Kaiser's surface fleet played a very minor role in the War. The u-boat became Germany's primary naval weapon, yet the primary achievement of the uboat fleet was to draw Americ into the War, thus ensuring Germany's defeat. The Kregsmarine again played a minor role in World War II. The German surface fleet was a major disappointment to Hitler. The U-boat proved again to be Germany's primary naval threat.

The United States Army

The Continental Army in the Revolutionary War was the first truly national institution abd of course won independence from the Brirish Empire. The United States Army has played a major role in shaping our modern world. The Grand Army of the Republic held America together in the Civil War which meant that a united American was a major influence on the 20th century. The American Army played major roles in both World wars. American entered both wars without a large trained army and in both instances Germany made a fatefull gamble that they could win the war before the arrival of the Americans in force. When America declared war on Germany (April 1917) there was essentially no American Army. Although America only entered World war I in 1917, German Field Marshal Ludendorf was to say that it was the American infantry that was the decisive force in the West. Again when World war II broke out, the American Army consisted of only a small professional core. Devisive debates were held in the Congress over drafting a sizeable force (1940 and 1941). Only amonth before Pearl Harbor, the Congress almost ended the draft and allow those drafted to return home (November 1941). A journalist working in Britain recalls see the first boatload of American infantry arriving in Britaion (January 1942). They were an Iowa National Guard unit, the 43th infantry. They landed in Belfast still wearing the old World War I helmets. They were singing, ":Ioway--Ioway--Out Where the Tall Corn Grows". The journalist writes, "I hoped with all my heart that the men who led them knew what they were doing. They seemed a little dewy behinf the ears, almost surprised that they were overseas so far from Iowa where they might soon have to fight an ememy who wanted to kill them," [MacVane, p.75.] Few in this and subsequent units had any military experience. And they would soon be pitted against the battle hardened Wehrmact arguaably the most professional military in the history of warfare. They were in fact not prepared as the Panzers demonstrated at Kaserine (February 1943). They proved, however, to be fast learners and were backed by the emenese industrial capacity of the United states. Unlike World War I, the U.s. Army did not play the central role in deating NAZI Germany. It did play an important role in defeating the NAZIs and in preventing Western Europe from falling under the orbit of the Soviet Union.

United States Air Force

Although Americans invented the airplane (1903). The U.S. Army Air Corps was not a major factor in World War I and even had to use British and French planes (1917-18). Despite work in the 1930s, when the United States was propelled into World War II by the Japanese carrier attack on Pearl Harbor, air chiefs and air crews were shocked to find its fighters were badly outclassed by its Axis adeversaries and its bombers unable to carry out its missions without fighter protection. The same was true of the Navy air arm in the Pacific. The American naval victory at Midway (June 1942) brought time in the Pacific. Than during the following the rapidly expanding U.S. Air Forces and Navy began receiving high performance aircraft that decisively change the ballance in the air, giving the United States command of the air that it has never lost despite the best efforts of the Germans and Soviet Union. The decisive turning point in Europe was the appearance of the P-51 Mustang, an Anglo-American creation. Axis leaders launched the War believing that they could destroy cities and their own cities were untouchable. Hitler warned foreign journalists tourng the ruinS of Warsaw (October 1939), "I can do the same to any European city." And he attempted to do just that to London (1940). The Japanese did the same in China. U.S. Air Forces by the end of the War, however, had turned Axis cities, including Berlin and Tokyo, into vast heaps of rubble and charred wastelands. The key to America;s success as been the country's vibrant free market which created companies like Boeing, Grumann, Lockeed, North American and many more which created aircraft of unparalled performance and provided the indusrial capacity to produce them in numbers. The U.S. Air Force has also played a key role in the Cold War beginning with Berlin Airlift (1948-49) and preventing a North Korean victory in Korea (1950). The U.S. Air Force then providedpart of the nuclear shield as well as the tactical dominance helping to discourage a Soviet invasin of Western Europe. Today Ameican cruise missles and dromes are playing a ket role in the War against Islamic terror.

Other Military Forces

While the above forces have played major roles in history, there are of course many other military forces in history. One of these is the Russian Navy. Russia over time has been primarily a land power, but the Russian Navy has existed since Tsar Peter the Great foubded St. Ptersburg and a navy as part of his opening to the West. The Tsarist Navy's principal effort was in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) and ended in a disatrous defeat. The Russian Navy's primary part in history was the role in played in the Russian Revolution (1917). The Russian Navy was not a major factor in World war II. The Germans tuned the Baltic into a German lake and botteled up most of the Soviet fleet. After the War, the Soviets began building a blue-water fleet which in the Cold War became a major concern to the U.S. Navy.

Special Forces

Special forces existed before wirld war II, but they came into priominance during the War, in part because the phenomenal success of the Germans at the onset of the War left the British with few ways of hitting back. Small-scale commando raids and support for Resistance were at first some of the few ways the British could strike at the Germans, both strongly supported by Churchill. And onece organized, these forces were also used to support Allied offensive operations that were possible as Allied strength grew. The British SAS is often seen as the most gthroughly trained and successful unit not only during World war II, but after the war as well. The SAS first destinguished itself with daring desert raids against German airfields. [Mortimer] As is often the case, the full impact of these units is more the resources their opponents are forced to divert to counter messaures.

Country Forces

We intend to create a page linking pages under progress on the military forces of individual countries. At this time we only have completed a page on German World War II military forces.


Rome and the Sword (2011).

MacVane, John. On the Air in World War II (William Morrow and Company: New York, 1979), 384p.

Mortimer, Gavin. The SS in World War II: An Illustrated History (2011), 256p.


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Created: 8:14 AM 1/2/2005
Last updated: 12:51 AM 6/6/2013