Battlefield illustration of the battle of Otterburn

War & Society Part 1: From early human history to 1910

10 January 2023
Posted in: Humanities

This article is the first in a 4-part series exploring the history of war and examining the link between war and society, and how warfare has evolved over time.


War and society have always been linked. We see evidence of this around the world recorded on cave walls, stone buildings, papyrus and more recently, on paper.

Indeed, City Lit rose from the ashes of war. Established after the First World War to offer learning opportunities in the humanities. Veterans were amongst our first leaners. Our courses also ran in air raid shelters during the Second World War. For City Lit, like the rest of the world, war has been part of our journey.

To understand the link between war and society, we need to brace ourselves and review the past, examine the present, and try to gauge the future. This one is both long and tough.

How has war evolved over time?

War and society until the 1500s

From the first wars in human history to around 1500CE, warfare gradually shifted from minor skirmishes between small bands of hunters to large-scale wars with longer campaigns as larger groupings of warriors emerged in society.

In other words, war reflected and changed alongside the societies at war. Another feature was how wars were also fought on the same continents.

War is not only part of our past and present, but also our future. In very different ways, war affects and imposes on us all.

From around 600CE to around 900CE, for example, the emerging small coastal Norse kingdoms would approach the purpose, preparation, conduct and impacts of war very differently to, for example, their southern neighbours of different Christian kingdoms and empires across Europe and, further south, the vast Islamic Rashidun, Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates in the Middle East and North Africa.

Along with their size, resources and geographies, the ways these societies were organised would define the organisation of their fighting forces as well as the arms and technologies available to them. For example, the Norse societies strongly embraced agile forces using highly mobile ships and warrior bands fighting in ship groups organised in larger forces often pitted against garrison forces less able to fight in this manner.

Alcazaba of Almería fortress, built by the Ummayad Caliphate of Cordoba in the 10th century

The much larger Ummayad armies had integrated units used to both fight in movement warfare campaigns and siege warfare to take or defend fortified cities. These units included lance-armed cavalry on horse, lighter javelin and sword armed cavalry on camel, light cavalry archers, and infantry.

In line with these differences, the extent to which the elite would join the rank-and-file would also vary. Some sultans, kings and emperors were fighting leaders, drawing their authority and legitimacy from their campaigns and conquests. In many cases, the landed elites were expected to both offer troops and lead these on the battlefield themselves, as for example in the early Ottoman Empire.

The role of spirituality and faith in relation to war also varied, linking to ideas of being protected or chosen, the question of who could legitimately be enslaved as well as the question of the legitimacy of war, as was the case in the crusades, for example.

Altogether, most wars before 1500CE were fought by Agrarian and Nomadic societies on the same continents with a reliance on human and animal energies, and wind in the cases of wars with naval dimensions. Gunpowder also gradually made its appearance across Eurasia from the 13th century, although not yet leading to profound changes to the dynamics, tactics and strategies of warfare.

Still, pre-industrial warfare was brutal, devastating and efficient. There are many examples of conquerors being anything but benevolent when establishing, or maintaining, their presence and rule, particularly if faced with revolts. This is often evident in how former empires are remembered.

Some of these features of war began to change with the military and industrial revolutions that transformed not only warfare but also the global economy and global power politics.

Millions died from the combination of epidemics, violence and slavery in mines and on plantations.

How steam globalisation and European imperialism changed warfare, from 1500 to 1910

Across Eurasia, the empires of the Ottomans, the Mughals, the Qing and the Russians all innovated and expanded their armies’ use of cannons, artillery and firearms. They also reorganised their societies and economics to sustain their ever-larger armies, some of which moved away from being mobilised to become partially standing forces with core military staff and bureaucracies.

Using their armies in wars of conquest, against revolts and in civil wars, these empires became the dominant powers of Eurasia and both swallowed numerous kingdoms and smaller empires and bested the power of the nomadic way of war in Eurasia in the process.

From around 600CE to around 900CE, for example, the emerging small coastal Norse kingdoms would approach the purpose, preparation, conduct and impacts of war very differently to, for example, their southern neighbours of different Christian kingdoms and empires across Europe and, further south, the vast Islamic Rashidun, Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates in the Middle East and North Africa.

Along with their size, resources and geographies, the ways these societies were organised would define the organisation of their fighting forces as well as the arms and technologies available to them. For example, the Norse societies strongly embraced agile forces using highly mobile ships and warrior bands fighting in ship groups organised in larger forces often pitted against garrison forces less able to fight in this manner.

Territorial changes of the Ottoman Empire 1566

The much larger Ummayad armies had integrated units used to both fight in movement warfare campaigns and siege warfare to take or defend fortified cities. These units included lance-armed cavalry on horse, lighter javelin and sword armed cavalry on camel, light cavalry archers, and infantry.

From around 1500, the previously globally marginal Spanish and Portuguese kingdoms began expanding into the Americas, benefitting from several epidemics that wiped out huge numbers of people. To legitimise their undertaking in the name of the Catholic church and Christianity, the Spanish and Portuguese racialized the indigenous societies as inferior and barbaric.

Millions died from the combination of epidemics, violence and slavery in mines and on plantations.

Driven by their greed in the plantations and in the mines, the Spanish and Portuguese, and increasingly also the British, the Dutch, the French and the Danes, turned to coastal areas in Western and Central Africa. Here, they began what would become the enslavement of millions of people from different kingdoms and empires and the building of numerous coastal slave forts, many of which still stand today.

Related: African history courses at City Lit

HOS D123 African Slave Trade
The slave trade took the lives of millions of people and ravaged large parts of Western and Central Africa
This slave fort in Ghana was one of the many used by European slavers.

This racialized violence and exploitation of human life on a scale new to human history generated a wealth the European nations used to build fortresses at home and in the colonies, standing armies and navies capable of fighting far away. This further militarisation led to further violence in wars of expansion in Southeast Asia and North America.

The increased imperial and colonial reach of steam ships and steam locomotives both amplified the scale, scope and pace of European expansionist violence and enabled further colonisation, also in the northern part of the globe with Russia expanding far eastwards.

Additionally, the not always peaceful emergence of republics in both North and South America and Western Europe came to offer another way to expand armies through the linkage between white male citizenship, conscription and war.

Related: European history courses at City Lit

Resistance rising

At the same time, however, European imperial conquest and colonial rule faced resistance everywhere.

For example, the Comanche people turned the European horse into a weapon of indigenous resistance while also building an empire on the plains alongside fighting the colonial state.

In Southern Africa, the Zulu inflicted defeats upon the British, despite not having access to the same weaponry.

In Western Africa, women from several ethnic groups across districts of what became Nigeria started a series of protests that soon escalated into a joint war effort against British colonial rule, now known as the ‘Women’s War’.

To the north, the Ethiopians defeated the Italians, surprising them with their use of both strategic warfare and European arms.

Défense de Rorke's Drift

Alphonse-Marie-Adolphe de Neuville, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In fact, the European colonial and imperial powers faced resistance in most places so fierce they had to rely on colonial soldiers deployed outside their home regions. In some cases, as in the Congo of King Leopold, the Force Publique (sic) became a shorthand for brutal violence, which cost millions of lives in the hunt for rubber as the bicycle and automobile became popular in Europe and the US. To preserve their empire, the British also came to rely on a vast number of troops from their colonies, particular people from the northern parts of the Raj, often described as ‘martial races’.

Defining the second part of the 19th century, the greed of the European imperial and colonial powers increasingly pitted them against the larger empires of Eurasia. The opium wars, the Anglo-Russian ‘great game’ in Afghanistan and the inter-imperial efforts to end the Chinese Boxer Rebellion are examples of this new global dynamic.

With more wars fought and legitimised with ideas on ‘civilisation’, ‘race’ and empire, the legacies were grafted onto the international system, often in ways we still face today. By 1910, most wars were either imperial or colonial or anti-colonial and therefore racialized.

For example, the British war against the Boer settlers in what is now South Africa caused concern in the US not only due to the political strength of Irish and German migrant communities in federal politics but also because the war was perceived to be “‘white’ on ‘white’”, a delicate matter in the context of post-civil war America.

Related: American history courses at City Lit

Not long after the Boer War, the Japanese Empire challenged how war and empire had been racialised by defeating the forces of the Russian Empire in 1904-1905. The defeat also made it harder for the Russian Empire to modernise its army and, perhaps more importantly, economy and society, which later led to the Russian Revolution and subsequently its withdrawal from the First World War a few years later.

Many of the colonial and imperial wars still reverberate in oral histories and societal memories, if more strongly in the places ravaged by the wars than the places with monuments, parks and streets named after the generals.


Read more from this series

Exploring the link between war and society throughout history.

War & Society - Part 2

WW1 to WW2

War & Society - Part 3

1945 to 1989

Coming soon

War & Society - Part 4

1989 to 2022

Coming soon

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