It happened today - April 28, 2016

The battle of Cerignola There’s a wonderful image in Norman Stone’s counterfactual scenario where Archduke Franz Ferdinand is not assassinated. After the Austrians took Bosnia from the Turks in 1878 and made Sarajevo a showcase for central European civilization, fancy trains “would be saluted by a proud stationmaster in full-dress uniform” as though they were carriages. But that’s how technological change always starts. Very small.

Likewise, when printing first appeared people thought it was just very fast writing. They had no idea how it would contribute to the spread of literacy, of often heretical ideas, of scholarship (because people far apart could compare page and line references and ponder and correct corruptions in texts) and of bureaucracy. And then of course there’s the battle of Cerignola on April 28 1503.

Oh is there? you cry. And I do not respond by asking whether you can possibly be unaware of the victory of the Spanish under Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba and the French under the late Louis d'Armagnac, Duke of Nemours. Well of course they’re all dead now. But he became the late Duke of Nemours during the battle fought near Bari in Southern Italy that didn’t matter a hoot to anyone unless they were killed there.

Except for one thing.

Cerignola is the first battle decided by gunpowder small arms fire. The French forces were augmented by a contingent of formidable Swiss mercenary pikemen, among the most feared foot soldiers in Europe at the time. But their attack, along with French cavalry, was devastated by Spanish arquebusiers behind a ditch.

Larger gunpowder weapons had already played a pivotal role in shattering the feudal nobility, as cannons made the slow tedious business of besieging castles into a quick and lethal process. And in most of Europe, a nobility that had so dominated the king that it had no need to connect with the people found that when the new central state came for them, they had neither connections with nor sympathy from the peasants.

Even in England, control of the artillery by the first Tudor, Henry VII, perilously altered the balance of political power that had existed since at least the sealing of Magna Carta and led to two centuries of efforts to create absolutism. And the inability of the government to take small arms from the citizens was central to the failure of those efforts.

It’s a long, long way from Cerignola to the Somme. The arquebus was unbelievably slow, clumsy and inaccurate by our standards, a smooth-bore muzzle-loader you originally had to fire by putting a burning piece of wood or cord to the touch-hole though later it had a match-lock that held your burning thing for you and lowered it when you pulled the trigger. If it wasn’t wet. Or too windy. Or used up. Or the gunpowder was junk. Or your gun exploded and killed you. But you can’t keep ‘em on the farm once they’ve seen Paris and guns kept getting better even though humans didn’t.

Mass production, steam and then electric power, petrochemicals, all kinds of other things went into the lethal small firearms of the 20th century. And to be sure, even on the Somme artillery was a more deadly weapon than rifles or machine guns, in terms of the share of casualties. But the critical role of small-bore gunpowder weapons in reshaping battlefields first into the colourful squares of eighteenth and early nineteenth century wars and then the “empty battlefields” from the Boer War to Afghanistan, where to be seen was to be killed, had its seeds in a battle no one remembers in a war no one remembers. It always starts small.

Oh, by the way, at the end of that battle, dismayed by the sheer number of dead, the Spanish commander ordered the first “toque de oracion” or “call to prayer,” with three long tones played and then his own troops praying for their dead enemies. Looking ahead to the Somme, and understanding that few have ever died well who die in war, we might well still say “God help us” as gunpowder spreads.