by P W Turner and R H Haigh
(Reproduced by kind permission of the New South Wales Historical Society)
With the exception of two relatively small scale dress rehearsals provided by the American Civil War and the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, it was the first time that the technological military developments made possible by the Industrial Revolution were deployed in a conflict between major industrial powers.
The results were so terrible that they entered into what one might fancifully call the European folk memory, given concrete shape by war memorials containing the names of half of the able-bodied males in a district, the verse of Owen and Sassoon, the novels of Aldington and Henry Williamson, scores of films from All Quiet on the Western Front to Paths of Glory and at a more popular level, the haunting musical images, conjured up by the score of Oh, What a Lovely War!
The central theme of most of these works tends to be provided by the search for guilty men. For, to comprehend such a cataclysm, one had to personalise it, to attach meaning to the sacrifice by seeking causes and ends. To identify those responsible for the conduct of the war and its eventual outcome, not surprisingly in a notably unmilitaristic culture, the generals were cast in the role of principal culprits, with the politicians (unspecified) following in a subsidiary role. What we propose to argue is, that however understandable the search for personal devils may be, it is a sterile one, for the true culprits are the impersonal forces released by the general use of applied physical science in what came to be known as the Industrial Revolution. In a more specific sense we intend to demonstrate how a number of quite simple changes in technology, reflections of that industrial revolution, could have almost incalculable results on the nature of war. To do this we intend to give a brief account of what had gone before.
Military Technology in the age of the Flintlock
From the beginning of the eighteenth century, all European wars were fought, and were to be fought for the next 150 years, with basically similar weapons and these weapons dictated all the tactics of the conflict while their availability virtually dictated its strategy and its scale. The key to it all was the flintlock musket. A smooth bore muzzle loading weapon burning black powder, ignited by a spring loaded flint and steel mechanism and throwing a heavy lead ball. The ball, incidentally, was of 0.69-in [18 mm] calibre, the barrel of 0.75-in [19 mm] diameter. The enormous (by modern industrial standards) tolerances or 'windage' giives one some idea of the standard of engineering of the time. Muskets of this type were produced all over Europe. The one most generally used in the British service, the Tower musket, popularly known as 'Brown Bess', equipped British field formations from the time of Marlborough right through to the period immediately proceeding the Crimean War.
In the hands of well-trained troops the rate of fire of this weapon, for short periods at least, was in the region of four rounds a minute. Loading the weapon was a fairly complex procedure. The soldier would carry his ammunition in an expense pouch in which individual charges of powder and ball would be separately wrapped in what were at that time known as cartridges. These were not however the familiar cartridges with which all good devotees of the Western would be familiar but were stiff paper cylinders, usually waxed, containing a large charge of black powder and a heavy lead ball. When the soldier was required to load his weapon he would take one of these cartridges from his pouch, bite or tear off the end of the paper cylinder, and pour a small part of the powder into the priming pan on the side of the musket barrel. He would then close the lid on the priming pan to stop the powder spilling and pour the remainder of the charge down the muzzle. The ball was then dropped on top of the charge, the paper screwed up and rammed down the muzzle of the weapon with a long iron ramrod carried beneath the barrel. The charge would then be held fairly firmly in place by the screwed paper wad, and the weapon ready for use. When the soldiers wished to fire the weapon he would pull back the hammer, which was a spring-loaded arm containing, within a clamp on its end, a piece of flint. When the trigger of the musket was pulled, the flint would swing forward, strike and drive back the cover of the priming pan (this was known as the frizzen), and the resulting shower of sparks would ignite the small amount of powder in the pan. The flash from this discharge would pass down a touch-hole on the side of the barrel and ignite the main charge. This was of course a somewhat chancy procedure. First of all, if the powder were damp or if it were raining, there was no guarantee that the priming powder in the pan would ignite, or possibly on a windy day it may well be blown away. Sometimes the touch-hole would be blocked with partially burned powder from earlier shots, and, all-in-all, if three shots out of five detonated effectively, the weapon was considered to be functioning reasonably well. Even assuming the charge was effectively ignited only about 50% of it acted as a propellant, the other 50% was deposited on the inside of the barrel in the form of a sooty fouling or blown out in clouds of dense greasy smoke. The former problem, that of muzzle fouling, meant that the longer the weapon was used in action, the more difficult it was to load, as the ramrod found it progressively more difficult to force the ball down the barrel, and the latter problem meant that the visibility on the battlefield was frequently obscured by a quite literal 'fog of war'. At the battle of Waterloo, for instance, visibility was down to 80 yards [73 m] in broad daylight, and opposing infantry formations were only visible to each other as the muzzle flashes from their weapons illuminated their positions.
A musket ball could kill at 500 yards [457 m], however the weapon was so inaccurate that a hit at that range was pure chance and the usual combat range was 100 yards [91 m] or less. The best of the muskets in production during the 19th century, the French Charleroi was subject to an error of 9 ft [3,7 m] at a range of 250 yards [229 m]. To illustrate this point the range record achieved by a company of German infantry makes extremely interesting reading. German infantry were generally reckoned to be rather better marksmen than the French and substantially worse than the British (this is not chauvinism but merely reflects the fact that a wealthy Britain with a small regular army could afford to burn more powder in practice). The company of rather more than a hundred men were shooting at a target which was not the conventional bulls-eye to which we are accustomed but a long rectangular screen approximately 100 ft [30 m] long by 6 ft [1,8 m] high, the sort of target that another company of infantry in extended order would present. At 75 yards [66 m] 60% of the shots were on target, at 150 yards [137 m] only 40% of the shots were anywhere on the target and when the range opened up to 225 yards [205 m] only a quarter of the shots actually made contact. One can see therefore that the musket had very definite limitations.
More accurate weapons were available, incidentally, and 18th and 19th century gunsmiths were well aware that by making the ball fit very tightly into the muzzle of a weapon and cutting a spiral groove in the barrel it was perfectly possible to make the ball spin; the principle, of course, of the rifle: for all that rifling involves is cutting a spiral groove to spin the projectile. A spinning projectile is much more accurate than one which does not spin and consequently the advantages of the rifle were perfectly well understood. However, as practical breech-loaders (i.e., rifles that could be loaded other than by forcing the projectile and charge down the muzzle), were not readily available, then the necessity of forcing a tight-fitting ball down a muzzle, especially one which was soon partially blocked by fouling, reduced the rate of fire significantly, and instead of four rounds a minute in the hands of trained troops became one round per 90 seconds. What was even more significant is the fact that the manufacture of the rifle in an age before machine tools, was an expensive and laborious hand process, and to equip an army with such a weapon would prove prohibitively expensive.
The limitations of the musket therefore, explain many of the things that puzzle the modern student of 18th and 19th century military affairs. For instance we have all seen the films in which the pre-revolutionary American frontiersman ruminates aloud about the foolishness of dressing troops in red coats and making them stand up to fight. If one considers that they were equipped with a weapon that stood five feet high and had to be loaded through the muzzle, then one can see that it was quite impossible to load it quickly in any other position than bolt upright. If one further considers that at an effective combat range of under 100 yards [91 m], camouflage was unlikely to be particularly useful in concealing one man, let alone a formation, and as the musket was only really effective when many weapons were fixed in unison, volleys fired by formations were virtually obligatory. The nature and limitations of this weapon and its derivatives dictated in turn the tactics of contemporary warfare. The problems of producing even this relatively crude missile weapon also did much to dictate the size of armies as one could clearly not field an army any bigger than one could equip.
The musket barrel was manufactured from wrought iron, as steel, for much of the 18th and early 19th century, was only manufactured in laboratory quantities. This wrought iron was rolled into thin sheets, the sheets were rolled around a former, usually a metal rod, and seam welded, i.e. the edges were overlapped and hammered while hot until an effective join was made. The various small parts of the gun, the lock, the wooden furniture, i.e. the stock and barrel fittings, and the bayonet, were all separately made by different sub-contractors. These parts were then usually supplied to a government armoury in bulk, and each weapon would be made up by putting these rough parts together. There was no real question of providing interchangeable parts as each component had to be worked upon with hand tools until the parts fitted smoothly and each weapon was then unique. It wasn't, for instance, possible to take the lock from one musket and fit it to the stock and barrel of another without modifying it with hand tools first. As a result it was not possible to make these weapons in very large numbers and armies tended to be much smaller in size than even the limited conscript forces common in contemporary democracies. What is even more significant is, that in an age of transport by pack mules and horse-drawn wagons, even if it was possible to equip a large army it would be quite impossible to supply it once it was more than a short distance from its supply base. To give one a definite idea of the relative size of armies of the flintlock age, Napoleon's 'Grand Army' numbered significantly less than 450 000 men whereas the German field army of 1914 numbered over two-and-a-quarter million and even the tiny British Expeditionary Force could field nearly 150 000 at the beginning of the war.
There existed, as a consequence, a situation in which smallish armies were equipped in the main with weapons which had an extremely low rate of fire, limited range and even more limited accuracy which meant, in turn, that the tactical uses of the weapon had to make the best of its rather limited potential.
Musket-armed infantry however, were not the only effective arm available to the field commander. He would also normally have a force of cavalry. By the opening of the classical age of flintlock warfare, i.e. the years of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, cavalry had become principally a reconnaissance arm and a shock weapon. The reconnaissance function is obvious, they were able to move around the countryside considerably faster than marching infantry and would therefore be deployed in small parties ahead of an advancing army to tell the commander what lay 'on the other side of the hill'. As a shock weapon, horsemen were grouped in large numbers and required to advance very quickly, frequently at the gallop armed either with a sword or a lance, and the sheer weight of a formation of horsemen would often be enough to overwhelm and scatter vulnerable foot soldiers.
The final element on the chess board was the field-artillery, virtually rather larger versions of the flintlock musket mounted on wheeled carriages. These weapons would throw either a heavy iron cannon ball (usually of 9 or 12 pounds [4 or 5 kg] weight), which would carry for upwards of a mile, or at shorter ranges they would fire grape-shot, a number of rather smaller balls, about the size of a child's fist, linked by a fibre-net and having an effective range upwards of a quarter of a mile and, finally, canister-shot. This last type of ammunition was a metal canister about the size of a catering coffee tin, packed with upwards of a hundred musket balls and having an effective range of rather less than 250 yards [228 m] which, as one can see, would only be employed under virtually point-blank conditions. In the last two instances, grape- and canister-shot, the projectiles could separate into their component parts once blown clear of the muzzle of the gun. Round shot would therefore be used at relatively long ranges and, as it did not have any sort of bursting charge, would simply act in very much the same way as a gigantic cricket ball bowled through a formation of men. Grape-shot would be used at slightly shorter ranges and the spread of the projectiles would make it rather more lethal as an anti-personnel weapon and cannister used at short range had the effect of a giant-sized, sawn-off shotgun which one can imagine would be quite devastating at short range. There was, incidentally, one final refinement, spherical canister or spherical case-shot invented by a Major Henry Shrapnel. This was a small, hollow spherical container; in effect, a hollow cannon-ball containing a quantity of smaller projectiles, scattered by a bursting charge operated by a slow burning fuse designed to ignite the bursting charge at a predetermined range. This last refinement was never in general use but had a limited currency in the British armies of the period.
Equipped with these weapons, and organised in this manner, armies of the period played out a kind of military chess game, in which the manoeuvres one sees on a modern parade ground or at a modern military tattoo had a real and immediate value. Close-order drill was battle-drill, the necessary manoeuvres of the battlefield. A commander would, for instance, use three basic formations. He would move his army in column because it wasn't possible to traverse the roads of the period in any other formation. Nor, in the absence of any direct communication method was it possible to control a more scattered formation. It was necessary to command them by either shouted orders or bugle, trumpet or drum signals, or, for even longer-range communications, written messages carried by mounted officers. Having moved his formations in column, the commander had to deploy them in an entirely different formation in order that they might fight. If, for instance, he wished to achieve the maximum fire power from his infantry he had to get them in the longest and shallowest formation possible. For, if they were deployed in three ranks, the rear rank would tend to be obscured by the front rank. So, a single line would give the maximum number of men the best possible opportunity to use its weapons. Once fired, however, it took some time to reload a musket and if, in the meantime, a large formation of cavalry could be brought close to the helpless infantrymen, the sheer weight of the charge would overwhelm the soldiers before they could reload. It was therefore customary to organise them in squares when in the presence of enemy cavalry, i.e., to form a company or a battalion into a hollow square in which the front rank would kneel down, holding before them their muskets with bayonets fixed, forming a kind of hedge of blades, while from behind this mobile fence the other two ranks would fire at advancing cavalry. Even if every man in the square had fired his weapon, horses would be reluctant to advance upon the bayoneted muzzles and the sheer density of the formation tended to make it very difficult to scatter by any sort of shock action.
The square was, however, extremely vulnerable to close range artillery fire. A ball would obviously do a great deal more damage to a solid formation than a linear one and if it were possible to close the range to one at which it was possible to utilise canister, then two or three salvos from a battery of field artillery could almost destroy a battalion caught deployed in square. One can appreciate, therefore, that a commander needed to manoeuvre his troops in column, deploy them in line to give them maximum fire power and form them into square to give them maximum solidity. If it were possible, by taking advantage of the ground, to threaten a column with cavalry and make it form a square then, by bringing artillery from behind the shelter of a hill, it could be brought under close range fire, and overwhelmed, either with an infantry or cavalry assault, and the battle brought to a definite conclusion by skilful manoeuvre.
British armies with their rather stolid disposition and, as professional soldiers, more skilful musketry, were constantly able to defeat much larger Continental formations. British commanders learned at an early stage the considerable advantages to be derived from using infantry essentially as wielders of fire power rather than carriers of bayonets. The massed columns of assaulting, bayonet-armed infantry, most of whom were unable to use their weapons because they were obscured by the ranks in front, were continually destroyed by the linear formations of British troops, all of whom were able to use their weapons long before the assaulting columns could close to the point where shock tactics were of any value.
As a consequence, 18th and 19th century wars tended to be fairly short in active duration and to involve a relatively small proportion of the population. Wars did, of course, drag on for many years but, in general, this meant that when a military campaign was fought, won or lost, the defeated army would either, in the case of a British expeditionary force, return to the home island and lick its wounds before reassembling, or, in the case of European armies, seek some sort of accommodation with the enemy and retire, for another round later on.
Long continuous slogging matches of the kind familiar to later generations of soldiers were rare, or indeed unknown. The only campaigns that did lend themselves to any sort of protracted duration were those of the Peninsular and these were a rather special case as they became an almost idealogical conflict, where a completely disorganised collection of Spanish irregulars harried the occupying French forces which were forced to disperse to consolidate the victories won in the field. At no time was a Spanish army able to face French troops in a pitched battle and survive, but the nature of the conflict was such that pitched battles rarely took place and small, ill-armed mobs of Spanish peasants, led principally by local land-owners, were continually sniping at the flanks of small French units deployed in what was virtually the role of a military police force.
In general, however, the armies of this period would have an extremely limited impact on society beyond the immediate area of conflict and the concept of a nation in arms was never more than a vague idea. It is interesting to note that the novels of Jane Austen were written during a period in which Britain was, quite literally, fighting for national survival; yet it would be perfectly possible for one to read all of them and be almost unaware of the fact that a war was taking place; a fair indication of the extent to which it was possible to ignore the fact.
The collapse of the French armies after the battle of Waterloo effectively ended the Napoleonic wars and introduced 'The Long Peace' to Europe, and it was during the subsequent period of relative military inactivity that major changes in industrial technique radically but unobtrusively altered this well-understood pattern of warfare.
As has been remarked at an earlier stage in this paper, it had long been known that a spinning bullet would go further and straighter than one that did not spin, but it was difficult to produce a weapon that would fire such a projectile without a great deal of trouble and expense. The development of industrialised methods of manufacturing metals and the invention of machine tools, including such simple but vital pieces of equipment as the screw-cutting lathe and the milling machine made it possible to produce rifled barrels on a very large scale. Barrels could be drilled from rolled bars and the barrels could then be rifled; i.e., a groove cut in the inside of the tube, with relative ease. Methods of igniting the charge also improved when the Rev Alexander John Forsyth invented the percussion cap, and the 1838 musket, a direct descendant of 'Brown Bess' was fired not by the familiar flintlock, but by such a device, essentially the same as the modern child's 'cap'. In this case made of fulminate contained between two thin sheets of copper, rather than a slightly less lethal substance deposited upon a strip of paper.
The next step in the evolution of the military longarm was the Enfield rifle. The Enfield rifle was an extremely simple weapon. It was still loaded from the muzzle but ignition was by means of the percussion cap and the projectile was entirely different. It was a cylindro-conoidal bullet with a hollow base, still loaded in very much the same way, i.e., it was necessary to ram the bullet down the muzzle of the rifle, having first poured the powder charge down, but the problem of persuading it to fit tightly into the grooves was overcome by making it an easy, sliding fit which would be transformed into a tight one by the explosion of the charge in the hollow base of the bullet forcing the soft lead into the grooves. The range of this weapon was about a thousand yards [914 m] and certainly accurate, aimed musketry was possible at ranges in excess of six hundred. It had a rate of fire of about three rounds per minute and although, with the exception of its method of ignition, it looked very much like the familiar musket, it was a very different weapon. Indeed, the colossal infantry combat casualities suffered in the American Civil War were largely because the field commanders of the period had not yet adjusted to the implications of a weapon having this kind of range and, for instance, the tactic of galloping field artillery to within 'canister range', i.e. 2 - 300 yards [182-275 m] of opposing infantry was only stopped when it was discovered that the long-reaching Enfield rifles of the infantry could kill the entire gun crew and destroy the team of horses that hauled the weapon and its limber long before the gun could get into range. It is by no means certain that the field commanders appreciated the implications of this new weapon as quickly as did the ordinary soldiers, who rapidly discovered that the only way to survival on the battlefield was to dig in as quickly as possible. Most of the photographs of the period taken by such war photographers as Matthew Brady, showed the hastily dug field fortifications of the infantrymen; and in the case of positional warfare, the elaborate field fortifications that remind one so much of the First World War.
It was, of course, still extremely inconvenient to be forced to load a weapon through the muzzle. The fouling of the muzzle caused by black powder slowed up the process fairly quickly and it was extremely difficult to load such a piece in any other position but an upright one, which the introduction of such an accurate, but hard-hitting weapon made extremely imprudent. It was, of course, well within the capacity of the industry of the period to machine gas-tight, metal-to-metal seals. As a consequence, the first breech-loading weapon issued to the British Army was the 1865 Snider conversion of the Enfield rifle. This had a rather simple, trapdoor action and, instead of firing the paper round which had to be torn, the powder poured into the muzzle, followed by the projectile; it fired a unitary cartridge made of metal, very much like the familiar modern round; containing the ball, the powder and the primer all in one neat package. This was of course a transitional weapon designed to make use of conversions of the existing stock of Enfield rifles. In 1871, a new weapon, the Martini-Henry rifle was introduced. This had an under-lever action and fired a rather smaller round, as it was once more soon discovered that there were two methods of killing an opponent with a projectile weapon. One was to throw a large ball at a relatively low speed, and the other was to throw a smaller projectile at a rather higher one. The invention of the rifle and the higher muzzle velocities possible with improved propellants and the infinitely tighter gas seal of the rifled barrel, made it possible to reduce the calibre of the weapon and hence the size of the round at a fairly early stage. As a consequence, the individual soldier was able to carry more ammunition.
By 1871, of course, magazine weapons had already been developed and the ability to load once and fire often was of particular value either in repelling infantry assaults or for the use of cavalrymen who found it extremely difficult to load while in the saddle. All western film fans are familiar with the Winchester rifle, although it was of course preceded by the Spencer which actually saw action during the American Civil War. These were, as Western fans will know, extremely rapid-firing weapons and, indeed, they fired nearly as fast in action as they are shown to fire on the screen. The difficulty was however, that the rounds were contained in a long tube under the muzzle, forced into a position beneath the breach by a long spring, and lifted into the breach by the action of a lever. This meant that if one was to get enough rounds in to make such a complex mechanism worthwhile, it was necessary to use an extremely short cartridge, which meant, in effect, oversized pistol ammunition having a relatively low velocity and short range. Indeed, the Spencer and the Winchester were little more than oversized pistols. The other major difficulty was the extreme fragility of such an action, which suffered from hard usage, and although the private owner of such an arm might be expected to look after it very carefully, the military user was generally less well trained and certainly a great deal less careful. As a result it suffered the major disadvantage of not being 'soldier proof' and the final objection was the fact that with a long line of rounds ranged point to end in a confined tube, it was always possible for a violent impact to cause a magazine explosion with disastrous results to the handler. This weapon therefore, although effective and quick-firing, was not completely suitable for military use, although a Turkish army equipped with such under-lever action, magazine weapons, caused appalling casualties to its Russian opponents at the battle of Plevna in the Russo-Turkish War.
However, it was not long before engineering techniques once more provided a solution and this, the product of an increasingly sophisticated light engineering industry, was the bolt action rifle, a weapon in which bullets contained in rolled brass cases sealed by copper rims were forced up against the breach by a locking action. Rapidity of fire was added by the simple addition of a simple, metal box magazine beneath of the chamber with a 'w' spring, which would force a new round into position each time the bolt was opened to eject the spent case of the previous round. In this way a combination of a simple bolt action and box magazine gave the armies what they had been looking for for some time, a cheap, robust, 'soldier proof' magazine weapon. The British Army were soon equipped with the Lee-Enfield, Germany with the Mauser, Austria with the Mannlicher, and France with the Lebel. These weapons, sighted to a thousand yards [914 m], lethal at all ranges up to the maximum, with an extremely high velocity which could quite easily penetrate three bodies at short range, had a rate of fire of 15 rounds a minute at the worst, and up to 40 rounds a minute in the hands of well-trained troops. These of course were aimed rounds, rather than rounds fired at random. After its disastrous experience in the Anglo-Boer War, 1899-1902, the British Army concentrated very heavily on the arts of musketry and fieldcraft or concealment (the latter art vastly helped by the invention of smokeless propellants). The Germans at Mons and Le Cateau thought that the BEF was largely equipped with machine-guns because of the superb musketry of the troops who were feeding clips of five rounds into the magazines of their weapons and firing in almost continuous, drum fire. However, it should be remembered that the regular troops of the British Expeditionary Force were all professionals who had fired up to two thousand rounds each during their training, something which could not be equalled by the conscript Contintental armies and which would not be equalled by their successors in the citizen armies that followed.
The implications of this change in weaponry were that infantry firepower had been multiplied eight to twenty times, the range at which the weapons could be used effectively had been multiplied by a factor of twelve, and accuracy was so much greater than a class of weapons that in a previous generation had not been sighted at all and were only fired in volleys at large formations. These weapons could now be used for sniping at individual parts of the body at ranges of over a quarter of a mile. To this progress in the military long-arm could be added similar progress in the development of automatic weapons. Machine-guns had been vastly improved, and the mechanical actions of the Gatling and Gardner guns (which were of course effective and extremely fast-firing weapons but virtually pieces of field artillery compelled by their weight and bulk to be carried on field carriages) were replaced by gas or recoil operated, water or air cooled weapons with rates of fire of up to six hundred rounds a minute. The Maxim gun, for instance, was fully mobile and capable of being carried in a dismounted form by a team of half-a-dozen men with enough ammunition to keep firing for some minutes. At usual ranges with a bonus of accuracy gained by being mounted on a fixed tripod it could be used to devastating effect. The Maxim, which was adopted by the British Army in 1891, and by the Germans in 1895, was frequently described as concentrated essence of infantry. The Maxim patent was of course subsequently bought and the gun manufactured by the Vickers concern, and the Vickers gun, as it became known, saw action in the British Army continuously until the early 1960s.
Field artillery made similar progress. Field guns were loaded at the breech and rifled. The invention of the hydraulic recoil mechanism meant that the gun did not have to be re-laid (re-aimed) after each round. In parallel with the military rifle, metallic rounds were developed, i.e., changes in which the projectile, the propellant and the primer were made in one piece rather like a large rifle cartridge. Field guns of this type could fire these projectiles up to four miles [6,4 km], with a rate of fire increased from two to thirty rounds per minute. This additional range had, of course, resulted in the development of such tactics as 'indirect fire', in which guns would be fired at a reference point on a map which could not in fact be seen by the gun layers, with range corrections being given by an officer well forward of the guns, perhaps on the other side of a wood or a range of hills, telephoning back to his. battery.
Technology could not only manufacture weapons of this nature but was capable of manufacturing them in extremely large numbers, and with the development of such techniques as the mass production of interchangeable parts, the limit upon the size of armies imposed by the limits of manufacture in the early 19th century were removed, and the vast, millions-strong conscript armies of the early 20th century became a reality. Not only could these armies be equipped, they could also be transported and fed, initially by the use of railways and, in increasing numbers from 1910 onwards, motor lorries.
In 1914, as a result of military and diplomatic miscalculations, a major European war broke out, and for the first time large armies were called upon to employ these new devices in the field. Military thinking had not really adapted itself to the changed realities of the situation and political and military leaders were forced, abruptly, to break away from patterns of thought geared mainly to the last major experience of European war and adapt to circumstances which had radically changed. They found that the massive growth of fire power had virtually abolished tactics. The only escape from this fire power was a hole in the ground and victories cannot be won from such holes.
All of the 1914-18 war was an attempt to escape from this dilemma. The first technique to be widely used was the use of massed artillery in which tremendous barrages were laid down, not only by the type of field guns already described, but by massive howitzers and siege weapons firing from well behind the lines. These colossal concentrations would lay down a carpet of fire often lasting days on end. The barbed-wire entanglements in front of the field fortifications would be destroyed, the trenches themselves would be battered in and the defending troops killed. That, at least, was the theory, but in practice, the barrage could never kill all of the defenders, sufficient of whom would always survive in their holes in the ground and deep dugouts to drag up machine-guns and lay down a curtain of automatic fire that would kill the heavily-laden, assaulting infantry who were themselves hampered by the crater zones caused by the barrage. Such a weight of explosive could hardly fail to reduce a battlefield that was already, in the case of northern France, not very well drained, to a morass of muddy shell holes. Even if a force did manage to capture the forward trenches, the absence of vehicles with cross-country capacity meant that the problem of reinforcing the assault over shell-torn ground required roads to be constructed before largely horse-drawn transport could bring forward supplies. As a consequence, the difficulties of attack were much greater than the problems of defence, as defending forces were able to use undamaged railway lines to bring up their supplies and reinforcements and then pass them forward over relatively undamaged roads. The defence therefore always had an enormous advantage over the attacking side.
A classic example of such artillery slaughter was the battle of Verdun, in which the German commander, Von Falkenhayn, decided, quite deliberately, to pick a spot which he thought the French would be psychologically compelled to defend, and use it as an opportunity to destroy the opposing infantry with heavy guns. Verdun had in fact very little intrinsic military value as it was an outdated frontier fortress and the railway lines leading to it were already cut by the St Mihiel Salient. The French were therefore compelled to bring all reinforcements and supplies to the garrison along a congested single track road, and it would certainly have never been any use as a jumping off place for an assault. The German reasoning was, however, correct. The French felt it necessary to defend the position and a large part of the French army passed through the Verdun 'sausage grinder' and was severely mauled in the process. To give one an example of the intensity of the German barrage, two million shells were fired on 21 February alone. During this campaign French losses ran as high as 315 000 dead although one doubts whether they had any very clear idea of the total of the losses at the time. The German army however, fell into its own trap. It began to believe in the value of Verdun and, as a result, started to feed in infantry which in turn had to face up to French artillery fire and hence ultimately the German losses of 281 000 dead were not much smaller than those of the French.
The next solution to the problem of how a man could survive on a modern battlefield, other than in a hole in the ground, was to enable him to take the hole in the ground with him; i.e., to provide the infantry, the attacking forces, with a mechanically propelled shell of three-eighths of an inch [10 mm] armour-plate. This resulted in the invention of the armoured fighting vehicle or 'tank' as it became known. These were used in 'penny packets' from the early part of September 1916 onwards, first seeing action at the battle of Flers Courcellete at the close of the Somme campaign and were invariably used in the initial stages on grossly unsuitable ground.
If one considers that these vehicles weighed 28 tons, were driven by an engine that only developed 105 horsepower [78 kW] and were only protected by 10 mm of armour one can see how relatively under-powered and thinly skinned they were, and with a maximum speed of 3.7 miles an hour [6 km/h] and a height of 8 ft 2 ins [2,4 m] they were extremely vulnerable to artillery fire.
They were armed with two six-pounder naval guns or four machine-guns, and required a crew of four merely to drive them. One driver had to operate the primary gear-box and accelerate and decelerate, and two gearsmen had to change gear on the left and right track to provide a means of changing direction. All of them were guided by an officer or NCO with his head in a slightly elevated box turret with a rather better vision than the rest. The maximum range of this vehicle on good going was 23 miles [37 km] and in the kind of mud in which they frequently operated, a speed of one mile an hour in gear cut the range to something less than 12 miles [19 km].
It was not until the battle of Cambrai on 20 November 1917, when 415 improved Mark IV tanks were used without artillery preparation over good ground, that armour made a significant contribution. Even the Mark IV tank with its 12 mm of armour and improved range, was barely an adequate weapon for the purpose. It was slow, vulnerable, exhausting for the crews, with a very limited range (70 gallons [318 l] of fuel at one mile [1,6 km] a gallon gave a radius of action on good going of 30 miles [48 km]), interior temperature with an unprotected engine that frequently exceeded 100 degrees fahrenheit [73degC] and almost total vulnerability to close-range field artillery. It was therefore far from being the devastating, overwhelming weapon that it has become on the pages of some fiction.
Tanks, of course, continued to improve and by the battle of Amiens on 7 and 8 August 1918, 604 tanks were involved all of which were Mark Vs which required only one driver without the gearsmen, were driven by a 150 horsepower [111 kW] engine and with a weight of 29 tons and a speed of 5 miles per hour [8km/h] were beginning to show a great deal more potential. The massed weight of nine tank battalions, 324 fighting tanks leading two light battalions of 'Whippet' tanks which were to exploit the gap, 124 supply tanks to support the assault and 22 gun-carrying tanks bearing artillery, all supported by armoured cars with special reduction gearing to cross the crater zone, comprised an assault force which began in embryo form to resemble the Blitzkrieg, the devastating torrent of armour that subsequently smashed the Allied Armies in 1940.
Before Amiens, the defence was still able to reinforce faster than the attack could develop, as the cavalry, the only mobile arm available to the Allied Armies at that time, were unable to exploit any sort of breakthrough made by the armour in the face of even a residue of wire and machine-guns. Hence, in the absence of lorried infantry carried in protected, cross-country supply vehicles, the problems of supporting the attacking forces was almost insoluble.
From Amiens onwards, not only was this problem largely solved, but lack of man-power forced the German armies to shorten their front as the process of 'attrition' continually sapped their ability to continue to fight.
The emergence of armoured warfare in mid-1918 presaged the type of campaign that overwhelmed the Anglo-French armies of 1940 but came far too late to radically affect the conduct of the First World War.
This lateness cannot be seriously attributed to military blindness, but rather to the inherent difficulty of developing an entirely new branch of weapons technology.
Before this technology emerged, the opposing commanders were deprived of any viable tactical solution to the problems of forcing a rapid decision and, hence, what resulted was a war of attrition between two blocks of major powers matching population and resources. It only ended with the collapse from exhaustion of three of these. powers; Russia, Austria-Hungary and Germany.
One can appreciate, therefore, that the popular image of a golden age and a lost generation destroyed by evil politicians and inept commanders is hard to sustain.
Many of the generals were unimaginative to a fault but not even the most brilliant could break out of the constrictions imposed by prevailing circumstances, and these in turn were laid down by the limitations of contemporary industrial techniques.
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