And who are they, then, this army of the North that has swept the Continent from the Vistula to the Rhine?
The New Armies have reinvigorated, in churches from Paris to Budapest, the old prayer, to be delivered from the fury of the Norsemen; but they are no Vikings, these black-clad, Bible-quoting legions. True, the bows of the ships that carry them to battle bear, in memory of their ancestors, dragon-heads of fearsome aspect; and some of their regimental banners take the shape of birds of prey. But that is deliberate honour done to customs long dead. In all that partakes of function rather than form, the New Armies differ from their raiding forebears. They do not form loosely-connected bands of peers for a season’s campaign, free warriors attracted by a leader’s reputation for easy loot and bearing the costs of their own equipment as an investment. Rather they are written out, each surveyed farm of so many acres to supply one man for ten years, the State giving him his arms and his black uniform. They do not celebrate their religion in blot on feast-days, but soberly, going to Mass weekly to confess their sins and be saved by the body and blood of the White Christ. And they do not strike weak points and seek to be away with their loot before the defenders can gather. Instead they search out the armies of their enemies, and charge in among them to lay about with halberd and Lochaber axe; nor do they cease fighting until their foes are fled, or they can fight no more.
What gives them their famous discipline? Their fathers were not noted for martial exploits, nor for discipline even unto death. Like feudal levies before and since, they followed their lords in a rabble and died, often as not, in a rout. But the New Armies move like the fingers of a man’s hand, march in columns like centipedes, and even in retreat stand back to back, halberds out to ward their foes off their comrades. Whence this revolution in the military affairs of Norway?
It is, of course, religion that makes the difference. The northern periphery of Europe has long been out of communion with the Orthodox Christians surrounding the Mediterranean. They prefer to uphold the claim of the Popes in exile to be the true successors of St Peter, to have the power to bind and to loose; they pay no attention to the Patriarchs appointed in Constantinople, who speak the Creed without the filioque and who, rather worse, acknowledge the Emperor as spiritual overlord. The northern nations have shed blood to uphold that theological independence, and they are proud of it. But, if the truth were told, a Pope who does not hold Rome is, in the end, only another bishop; and over the centuries the “Catholic” church – the name means “Universal”, which is a matter for jest everywhere outside the two poor northern realms that still make that grand claim – has come to be rather a backwater even in the lands of its strength. The best and the brightest do not seek Church careers; even poor-but-bright boys seek other avenues for advancement, preferring to wrest new fields from colonial wilderness over mumbling half-understood Latin in dusty churches. So the God is served by second-raters, and naturally grows corrupt as well as lazy.
But fences don’t stand forever, nor churches, and the wind off the North Sea has power to cleanse. There have always been lay preachers, a scattered band of brothers with their own interpretations of Scripture and a burning faith; their congregations have been small, their real effect on the Church, none. A preacher with a printing press is something else again. Thirty years ago there were perhaps ten thousand books in all of Norway – not ten thousand different books, but ten thousand books total; and most of those were beautifully-illustrated Bibles written in Latin that only the tiniest minority can read. Now the land swims in pamphlets, broadsheets, circulars, open letters, appeals, posters, and – above all – vernacular Bibles. And the religious fervour of a poor mountain people, long dormant under a sleepy backwater Church, has woken in fury, and been channeled by an imperial State.
It cannot last; it will not last. Such a Great Awakening must, like a forest fire, burn itself out and leave behind cynicism and ashes. But while the flame burns, the psalm-chanting, black-clad New Regiments are invincible to lesser men; and they have blazed their indomitable will, the rock-steady belief on which victory can be built, from Stettin to Trieste. And the gates of Vienna have not prevailed against them.
Battles in some sense lost, but check out the casualty ratios and odds:
And with that sort of “victory”, it’s only a matter of time before the enemy coalition begins to lose: