You are on page 1of 11

One of the constants of warfare throughout history has been the presence of

mercenaries. The exact definition of mercenaries has always been hard to establish
absolutely, but for the sake of this essay, a common held definition describes
mercenaries as professional soldiers who have no other stake in the conflict and the
cause they are fighting for other then the pay they receive.
Mercenaries are recorded
throughout the spectrum of human conflict. A famous classical example is the 5

century BC Anabasis detailing a company of Greek mercenaries in Anatolia.
A more
modern example would be the massive surge of Private Military Companies providing
security in post-2003 Iraq with over a billion US dollars being spent on hiring
Where there was war, there was the soldier of fortune.
However, in Europe after the French Revolution, a paradigm shift occurred. By 1900
none of the major European powers employed foreigners or private military force in a
meaningful way and between 1794 and 1938, 49 states across the world had passed
legislation prohibiting their citizens from offering their services as mercenaries.
contrast, in 1793, half of the Prussian Army was recruited outside of Prussia itself.

States such as Hesse-Kassel maintained their militaries by hiring out vast numbers of
their citizens as mercenaries to other states engaging in capital-intense warfare,
providing Britain with 30,000 men during the American Revolution.

It had been considered a perfectly normal part of political activity across the globe,
which makes the mass abandonment even more striking. While mercenaries
themselves have never faded out of use, especially outside of Europe, even to this
day, the use of them in actual combat operations is seen in a negative light and
international law prohibits their use.
How can we account for the elimination of what had previously been an inseparable
part of military activity? The most long-standing theory sees the removal of the
private enterprise from the battlefield as just another part of the ascendency of the
modern state, a natural reaction to pressures placed upon state bureaucracy by
changes in warfare, population and economy. Other nations would then find
themselves forced to either adapt to the effective model or find themselves
marginalized and weakened. There are issues with this theory, however; it fails to
account for the success of mercenary activity prior to the 19
century, the manner in
which the development of the state included practices originating in mercenary
employment and overstates the influence of the French levee in warfare.
In light of this, alternative theories have been presented. Avant suggests that instead
of change coming about due to physical factors, the transition to standing armies

Sarah Percy, Mercenaries: The History of a Norm in International Relations
(Oxford, 2007), 65
Xenophon, in Warner (trans.) The Persian Expedition (St Ives 1972)
Jeremy Scahill, Blackwater: The Rise of the Worlds Most powerful Mercenary
Army (Exmouth, 2007), 13
Janice Thomson: Mercenaries, Pirates and Sovereigns: State Building and
Extraterritorial Violence in Early Modern Europe, (Princeton 1994), 81
ibid 29
Peter Wilson, The German Soldier Trade of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth
Centuries: A Reassessment, The International History Review, Vol.18, No.4, 1994,
757-798, 759
drawn from a nations populace either through volunteers or conscription is a result of
path dependency.
Under the trauma of defeat, nations would adopt the organisation
of the state that defeated them even if other models existed. Another theory,
developed by Thomson, argues that instead of a reflection of external politics, the end
of private military enterprise came about as a side effect of the changing relationship
between the state and the individual within it. Within this new domestic social
paradigm of enhanced control over individual agency, there was no room for either
the state to hire mercenaries or for the citizen to offer their services as mercenaries,

However, these two theories fail to address key issues of why the long-standing
tradition of the mercenary was dropped in the first place and why states that had all
the reason to continue acquiring military force in this manner abandoned it. A fourth
theory has emerged that argues rather then the result of domestic or external forces of
policy or political developments, mercenary usage fell from fashion because of the
adoption of long standing norms against mercenary use by State powers. Instead of
physical pressures forcing a change, the triumph of long standing moral thought
condemning mercenary action, finding its source in the Humanist traditions, led to the
use of mercenary force becoming a practice that was no longer seen as activity
undertaken by civilised states.
The classic explanation for the decline of the use of mercenary soldiery in the 19
centuries by states and polities sees it as another sign in the development of the
modern state. In this theory, the use of the unreliable mercenary was supplanted as
it was replaced with more effective and reliable citizen armies. As Mocker puts it, it
was Only with the growth of the nation-state in Europe that mercenary soldiering has
become disreputable.

Posen puts forward the model as follows; the rise of population and growth of the
economies of Western Europe resulted in the development of state bureaucracy in
order to leverage this wealth towards military activity. As wealth and manpower rose,
so did the size of armies under the pressure of changes in military activity.
addition, the rise of state armies was a key part of the doctrine of Absolutism and
marked the transfer of power from the private to the public sphere; it was no longer
deemed acceptable that regional aristocracy or a mercenary captain could command
his own forces without being part of a national army.

The culmination of this process and the act that signalled the rise of the citizen solider
is said to be the French Revolution. Abandoning existing forms of recruitment used
by the Ancien Regime, the National Convention in 1793, pressed for men after the
losses of the previous year, called for two national levies of manpower: the leve en

Deborah Avant, From Mercenary to Citizen Armies, International Organization,
54, 1, 2000. 51-52
Thomson, 86
Anthony Mocker, Mercenaries (London, 1970) 14
Barry Posen, Nationalism, the Mass Army, and Military Power, International
Security, Vol.18, Issue 2 (1993) 80-124, 83
Peter Wilson, New Approaches Under the Old Regime in Mortimer (eds.) Early
Modern Military History, (Chippenham and Eastbourne, 2004) 135-154, 135
300,000 in February and the leve en masse in August.
This resulted in
Revolutionary France having, at least on paper, 750,000 men under arms ready for
This new model is said to have had two major strengths. The sheer number of men
that could be called up meant that French commanders had an advantage over their
counterparts in terms of replacements meaning that France could continue to fight at a
higher intensity then other European powers. In 1812-1813, Napoleon had the
apparatus in place to allow him to conscript a million men in addition to his standing
forces. This was a powerful advantage on all levels of warfare, tactical, operational
and strategic, especially when combined with the mobilization of the French nation to
the war effort and marked the first instance of Total War in the modern sense, in
Western Europe.
The second advantage is the perceived superiority of the citizen soldier over the
mercenary soldier. A soldier drawn from the citizenry, fighting for his nation was
thought to be better motivated and behaved then a mercenary whose only loyalty was
to whomever was paying him. This was a crucial part of Republican ideology, the
concept that a citizen fighting for the nation was not only fulfilling his duty to the
state but was also securing his freedom.

The resulting success of the citizen army model then forced others to adopt it.

Prussia after its defeats in 1807 and onward launched on a program of military reform
and looked to France for inspiration. Clausewitz noted that the significant changes in
warfare seen in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars was no because the French
government freed itself, so to speak, from the harness of policy; they were caused by
the new political conditions which the French Revolution.
For Avant, this is the
key issue that led to the decline of mercenary usage; once one state has adopted a
successful model, others will follow it looking to emulate their success or fall behind,
even if other models are available, suggesting that path-dependency not physical
factors led to the end of the practice.

Some historians draw parallels with similar developments in past periods or outside of
the European experience. In War and State Formation in Ancient China and Early
Modern Europe, Bor-Hui makes the argument that the development of the state relies
on self-strengthening reforms in order to expand both administrative capability and
the ability to extract wealth.
However, less developed polities will either choose or
be forced to adopt self-weakening expediences in order to react to crisis or pursue
goals of expansion. Bor-Hui presents various reforms enacted by several ancient
Chinese states in the late 4
century as reason for their successful expansion and

Alan Forrest The French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars in Mortimer (eds.)
Early Modern Military History (Chippenham and Eastbourne, 2004) 196-211, 206
R Palmer, Frederick, Guibert, Blow, in Paret, Craig, and Gilbert (eds), Makers
of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age (Princeton, 1986), 91-
119, 93
Avant, 51
Clausewitz, in Howard, Paret (trans. eds.) On War (Princeton, 1989)
Avant, 50
Victoria, Tin Bor-Hui,, War and State Formation in Ancient China and Early
Modern Europe, (Cambridge, 1981), 29
eventual political homogeny shown through the 4
and 3
century ascendency of Qin
over the rest of China.
By establishing rational tax bases and recruiting conscripts,
the reforms spearheaded by Shang Yang in the mid 4
century created a military force
that Bor-Hui suggests lacked the weaknesses of mercenary forces; expense and

However, upon examining the what Percy terms the Realist argument, there are
considerable flaws in the theory.
The idea that a developed modern state precludes
the use of mercenaries to comprise either part or the entirety of its armed forces is
questionable. This is not including recruitment of foreign soldiers into units within a
citizen army, which is ongoing to this day, such the Ghurkha regiments of the British
Army and the French Foreign Legion. Leaving these acceptable forms of foreign
recruitment behind, it was quite clear that the major powers of Europe, despite their
growth into modern states were still making use of mercenaries and their practices of
Private Military Enterprise remained at the core of the permanent armies raised by the
developing states of Europe. For example, Frances army under Louis XIV not only
relied on foreign soldiery serving in his forces, but the command and organisational
structures of the Army relied heavily on private force and revenue.
In essence, the
model of military contractors, who raised funds, recruited and equipped soldiers and
then proceeded to use these forces in support of a ruler and the model of permanent
state armies in the late 17
and 18
centuries were not exclusive.
This was the
pattern across Europe; substantial private involvement in the organisation of militaries
was a practical requirement both to ensure that the military was funded and also to
bring about political control of the elites by rulers. Rather then force elites to provide
funds and manpower for a centralised state army, military enterprise transformed the
relationship between the ruler and the elite engaged in military activity. It allowed
rulers to solve two systematic problems facing monarchs in the 17
and 18
how to persuade nobles to contribute to the state and come under their authority and
how to guarantee loans to sustain military activity.

Colonels would recruit and pay their regiments with money given to them by the
Crown and make up any shortfall themselves.
While this never again reached the
scale of the Mercenary Contractor Boom of the Thirty Years War, commanding a unit
was recognised as a significant financial interest, from which a commanding officer
could expect to see his investment returned with profit. In the 18
century under
Frederick Wilhelm I of Prussia, the value of a company of Infantry to their
commander was 2000 talers. Upon receiving command, the new officer would be

ibid. 35
ibid, 36-37
Percy, 95
Jan Glete, War and the State in Early Modern Europe, (Bodmin, 2002), 32
David Parrott, The Business of War: Military Enterprise and Military Revolution in
Early Modern Europe (Cambridge 2012), 295
David Parrott, From Military Enterprise to Sanding Armies: War, State and
Society in Western Europe, 1600-1700 in Tallet, Trim (eds.) European Warfare,
1350-1750 (Cambridge, 2010), 74-95 82
Parrott, The Business of War, 295

expected to pay roughly 600 talers for new equipment and manpower as an
In essence, officers in a regiment would acted as shareholders and
oversaw its operation in exchange for profit. In addition to financial reward,
contributing in this way allowed early modern elites to demonstrate moral and
physical qualities demanded by European high society and to provided an avenue to
social advancement.

An alternative model to this model of making the military contractor a key part of a
nations standing army was the doctrine of Holland was capital-intensive warfare.
This was most commonly employed by states with either a small population or
traditional distrust of standing armies. Rather then use the aristocracy as creditors to
support a standing force, financial resources were instead employed hiring
mercenaries as required or financially supporting other nations to fight on their behalf.
A successful example of a state using this system to rapidly raise troops and make war
was Britain. During the American War of Independence, the British Crown deployed
over 100,000 soldiers across the globe between 1775 and 1783. However, no more
then two-thirds of this force was recruited from Britain.
The rest was hired from
various German states, most notably Hesse-Kassel. Ignoring Britains ultimate defeat
in this conflict, it was an effective manner in which to quickly acquire the military
force required. This financially driven means of raising troops and securing allies was
also the driving principle of Britains participation in the Revolutionary and
Napoleonic Wars leading to its eventual victory in 1815.
The other issue with the Realist theory is the belief that mercenary forces were less
effective then a citizen army is questionable. One would not use mercenaries if they
were useless. The length of the Thirty Years War for instance was not due to
stagnation by ineffective mercenaries, but rather the deployment of long standing
forces comprised of veterans which prevented any one side from gaining ground.
few decades after 1815, the Spanish Queen Regents victory in the Carlist wars was
due in part to assistance from foreign mercenaries, such as the British Legion.

Commentators of the time were also dubious of the qualities of the citizen soldier. In
de la Force publique written in 1790, Guibert was very negative on the nature of such
a force, saying that the differences between soldier and citizen were insuperable.
addition, the reliability of the early French volunteers in the period was not
impressive; by 1791, the French Army had lost 20,000 men to desertion out of a total
of 130,000, the bulk of which had been volunteers.
Similar problems had been seen
in the American War of Independence where the insistence on civilian volunteers led

Parrot, From Military Enterprise, 78
Johnathan Dewald, Aristocratic Experience and the Origins of Modern Culture:
France, 1570-1715 (Berkley, 1993), 47

Wilson, 145
Parrott, From Military Enterprise 83
Edgar Holt, The Carlist Wars in Spain (London, 1969), 167
Paret, Understanding War: Essays on Clausewitz and the History of Military
Power Princeton, 1992), 58
J Gooch, Armies in Europe (London, 1980), 27
to the Continental Army dwindling to 3000 men in the March of 1777.
behaviour of native citizen forces was also not much better then their foreign
counterparts; Frederick the Great described his native forces as for the most part
composed of the dregs of society.

Leaving issues of discipline aside, while Revolutionary and Napoleonic French
armies may have been recruited differently, they did not fight in a particularly novel
manner. The training, organization and tactics would have all been recognizable to an
earlier 18
century commander.
That they were seen as a force to emulate on
performance alone is questionable as the ultimate defeat of Frances citizen army was
at the hand of an old fashioned force under Wellington. The army he commanded at
Waterloo was the epitome of a traditional 18
century multinational force supported
by capital-intensive military policy.
As demonstrated, the use of mercenaries was a key part of military recruitment in
developed states. Neither was the effectiveness of private enterprise in war in
question. If military, political or economic factors were not responsible for European
powers abandoning mercenaries then what prompted the switch? Avants argument of
path dependency has a key flaw to it, identified by Percy. It may help to explain why
states followed the path of citizen armies, as nations followed in line with others but it
does not explain why this came about in the first place. Even if Prussias decision to
recruit solely from within its borders was a result of the reforms of 1807 and a result
of its defeat at the hands of a French citizen army, this does not explain why the
French chose an untested model and chose to spurn private military force.

From 1794, there was a massive surge in legislation that was passed by governments
prohibiting their citizens from engaging in mercenary activity. The wording of this
legislation with the focus on maintaining neutrality as so to prevent states from being
drawn into conflict by their citizens who choose to offer their services as private
military enterprisers.
However, Thomson suggests that rather then the sign of a new
sense of modern neutrality emerging in international politics, this legislation was part
of a development of state powers over the individual and reflected the changing
nature of the relationship between the two. Under the guise of neutrality, states were
able to impose new limits on their citizens. For example, the 1870 Foreign Enlistment
Act prohibited any British subject from serving in any state that was at war with any
foreign state at peace with her Majesty.
This legislation while prompted by the
Franco-Prussian War remained in place after the cessation of hostilities. This was part
of the monopolisation of the authority to make war by the state, removing it from the
private sphere.
Instead of a deliberate movement against the practice of private
enterprise, it was a side effect of the changing relationship between citizen and state.

Robert Middlekauf, The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution 17631789
(Oxford, 1982), 364
Quoted in Eliot Cohen, Citizens and Soldiers: The Dilemmas of Military Service,
(London 1985), 45
J Black, European Warfare: 1660-1815 (London 1994) 192-194
Percy, 107
Thomson 81-84
Thomson, 84
ibid. 88
But like Avant, Thomson fails to address a key issue; state control over citizen and
the use of mercenaries are not exclusive. This is another criticism made by Percy,
who points to the mercenary states of Hessen-Kassel and other German states
engaged in the mercenary trade who retained tight control over the behaviour of their
subjects, yet only stopped supplying mercenaries because demand for them dried up.

Rather than material pressure or changes in the domestic political relationship
between the state and the citizen, Europes sudden repulsion towards the mercenary
appears to have been caused by the adoption of long-standing anti-mercenary norms
by European countries.
As mentioned above, the reliability and behaviour of mercenary forces was often on
the same level, or even higher then that of the forces raised through other
mechanisms, yet during the more prominent periods of mercenary activity in Europe,
polemic attacks were often made on mercenaries despite more acceptable forces
behaving in the same manner. Even as early as the 12
century, contemporary writers
attacked the use of mercenaries. The anonymous author of the Gesta Stephani
described the foreign troops hired by Henry II as "profane scoundrels... guilt[y] of
murder and pillage of various abominations."
The 16
century saw an explosion of
anti-mercenary rhetoric from religious and humanist authors. The Swiss Reformist
Zwingli opposed the practice because he saw Swiss men being called away from the
nation, weakening it in the process; the acceptance of foreign money for military
service brought corruption, division and greed in return for lost lives.
thought is best exemplified by Machiavellis writings on the matter with two key
assertions. The first is that the Italian republics strength lay in their citizenry; a
healthy republic was one that enjoyed citizens who would fight to protect it.
other is that the use of foreigners for warfare would weaken it, the present ruin of
Italy is caused by its having trusted mercenary armies. Historians such as
Skinner have contested the accuracy of this claim, but it stands as a tenet of humanist
political thought.

As we can see, Mockers statement that it was only with the development of the
modern state that mercenary became a dirty word is incorrect. But how did this
translate into a shift in military policy?
The anti-mercenary norm emerged not as a result of mercenaries behaving worse then
other but because they were felt to be using violence illegitimately. A medieval
example of this can be seen in the trial of a or Routier Captain, a commander of a Free
Company during the Hundreds Year War, in the late 14
century for having done all
the things which a man can and ought to do in a just war including murder, holding
enemies for ransom, looting, pillage and other common acts in warfare.
He was
found guilty and executed not because he was guilty of committing these acts, but
because he lacked the authority to perform them.

Percy, 119
Potter (trans.), Gesta Stephanii, Regis Anglorum (Oxford, 1976) 254
G Potter, Zwingli (Cambridge, 1976), 139
Machiavelli, The Prince, (London, 1992), 35
Q Skinner, Machiavelli (Oxford, 1981), 32
Quoted from Richard Kaeeper War, Justice and Public Order: England and
France in the Later Middle Ages (Oxford, 1988), 85

The ability to confer legitimacy fell to the nobility and the church in this period
the early modern period, however it moved from lay aristocratic and ecclesiastical
bodies to the state. In essence, as the state grew to be the arbitrator of legitimate force,
it could no longer tolerate individuals outside of its control as this would go against
the moral modes of behaviour it demanded.
The relationship between the state and
the citizen was the result of this belief combined with the Humanist idea that a citizen
army strengthened the state morally.
This could be seen both in the adoption of citizen militaries and in their retention in
the post-Napoleonic era. The first instance of a government deliberately refusing to
hire mercenaries in the early modern period on these grounds was seen in the
American War of Independence. As mentioned above, the Continental Army suffered
heavily from discipline problems as a result of its recruiting policy. Yet despite access
to the same mercenaries hired by Britain, the Colonial leaders did not employ
mercenaries in the conflict. Part of this was a general distrust of mercenaries among
the population, but there was also an ideological basis to this choice which
determined and became the means to reach that objective.
This had its source in
Republican political theory, developed by political writers such as Harrington who
saw armed struggle by citizens as a necessary part of securing political freedom, with
liberty guaranteed as much by his right to be the sole fighter in his own defence as
by his ultimate right to cast a vote in his own government.

This model of thought also lay at the core of the decision by France during the
Revolutionary Wars to move to the untested citizen army model. However, the idea
that a state was stronger if its citizens fought for it lingered in the post-Napoleonic era
where other Revolutionary reforms were abolished. This can be seen in the decision
made by the French Government to retain the model of recruiting from its citizens. As
Deputy Teste noted, it was not just a matter of the most effective means of sustaining
an armed force, but moral to insist that the French army be exclusively French.

This concept found fertile ground even in states radically opposed to republican ideas.
Prussia had abandoned the use of mercenaries in 1808, one of the few reforms they
were able to affect on the nation in this early period. This decision was not one of
revolutionary ferment, but of social discipline
This is supported by Percy who
notes that despite the presence of mercenaries for hire in the post-war period, they
were no longer sought after as even the Conservatives among the Prussian elite had

J McCormack, One Million Mercenaries: Swiss Soldiers in the Armies of the World
(London 1993) 68
Percy 122
Percy 124
Harrington, quoted in J Pocock, Machiavelli, Harrington and English Political
Ideologies in the Eighteenth Century, The William and Mary Quarterly, Issue 22
Vol.4, (1965) 549583, 556
D Porch, Army and Revolution in France 18151848, (London, 1974), 64
Decree of 23 August 1793, quoted in Stewart, A Documentary Survey of the
French Revolution (New York, 1951), 473
been convinced by the morality of citizen duty for the good of the state, albeit in a
system of exemption.

With Prussia and France firmly rejecting mercenary employment, the international
norm against private military enterprise in the Western sphere of influence had been
set. Some nations, such as Britain retained it for longer then others. During the
Crimean War, Britain sought to supplement its standing army by raising a mercenary
force from several European nations. However, as Bayley notes, it faced heavy
opposition with one of the key issues being moral consideration; that a nation of
28,000,000 people should engage in the trade of men and could not supply their own
recruits when required.
It was due to this cultural pressure that Britain, a nation that
did not undergo a similar redefinition of the relationship between subject and state
joined ranks against Mercenarism.
It must be stated that this by no means meant the end of private military enterprise. It
saw continued usage of mercenaries by states outside of the European cultural
landscape and pushed by practical considerations such as the employment of Western
mercenaries by the Imperial Chinese Government in the Taipang Revolt.
the emerging post-colonial African states saw a brief revival of mercenary activity in
the late 20
century, but this was met by intense international condemnation.
However no longer was it acceptable to employ the use of primate military force
amongst states seeking to abide by international law and convention.
This norm against the use of mercenaries still holds strong to this day. The accusation
of an opponent as a mercenary remains a powerful propaganda tool that can serve to
deny an enemys forces cause as legitimate. Recent conflicts in Syria have shown all
sides of the conflict claiming that their opponents fighters are mercenaries to
varying degrees of accuracy.
However, the economic and political expediency that
mercenaries serve, shown in the massive surge of Private Military Companies during
the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, coupled with desires to cut budgets have seen
more and more functions that were once the realm of state militaries pass into private
The countries that established the anti-mercenary norm in the modern period
are now promoting private military activity and cutting the size of their standing
It is a possibility that in the future, this privatisation of military activity
may expand even to combat arms as public reaction to casualties and changing
economic pressures overcome these long standing norms. However, for the
foreseeable future, legitimate military action will adhere to these norms and remain
the province of state funded and supervised armies recruited from within their

Percy, 147
CC Bayley, Mercenaries for the Crimea: The German, Swiss and Italian Legions in
British Service (Ontario, 1977), 51
Thomson, 89
(Accessed on 7/01/2014)
55 (Accessed on 7/01/2014)

involuntarily-under-budget-reductions.html (Accessed on 9/01/2014)