Chapter 5 - The Emergence of Modern War
The Dawn of Modern War
The period between the 15th and the 17th centuries witnessed the emergence and consolidation of the nation-state as the primary form of sociopolitical organization and as the most dynamic actor in international affairs. With the collapse of feudalism the new dynastic social orders of the West had to develop new forms of social, economic, and military organization, all of which eventually influenced the course of weapons development and the conduct of war. At the beginning of the period the most common form of domestic political organization of the nation-state was the monarchy. By the 17th century the monarchs had gradually subdued or destroyed all competing centers of political power and parochial loyalty within their national borders, and the Age of Absolutism began, a period where national monarchs wielded absolute power over their politico-social orders. One consequence was almost 100 years of war declared at will by various monarchs upon one another, often over trivial and personal concerns.
Over the next century, however, the power of the national monarchs was gradually circumscribed by other sectors of society, some of them arising as a consequence of the changing economic structure. Expanding domestic and international economies brought into existence new classes of domestic political claimants who demanded a share in the power of the political establishment. By the 19th century this process of empowerment of new societal segments culminated in the rise of representative legislatures which gave these new classes at least limited participation in public policy. Not surprisingly, the increased influence of these new domestic political actors was in some proportion to the degree that they were valuable to the monarch in continuing his conduct of war and foreign policy.
As the social and economic structures of the nation-states became more complex they gave rise to merchant and financial classes that gradually began to challenge the monarchical order, usually based upon the support of the landed aristocracy as the primary source of wealth and power, and to demand a greater share in the political process. The emergence of new financial instruments (hard currencies, banking systems, letters of credit, international trade, cross-national financing and manufacturing) to cope with a developing international economy forced the national monarchs into an every greater degree of dependence upon the new classes to raise armies and fight wars. By the 18th century, few national monarchs could afford to maintain armies or fight wars without the help of the merchant and financial classes.
Economic concerns began to drive military ambitions at least equally with political and military concerns. The internationalization of economic affairs made it impossible for any one state to secure solely by itself the resources for war. The result was that it was no longer possible for any single state to gain military dominance over all other states or even a coalition of states for very long. The military adventures of any one state could only hope to achieve marginal gains at the expense of others. Under these circumstances, the international order became characterized by a constantly shifting (and thus unstable) balance of power among many national entities.
The economic costs of weapons and warfare increased enormously, and wars of this period often produced near or actual financial collapse for the participants. Professional armies and weapons were extremely expensive to produce and maintain relative to the resource base needed to sustain a large military force, and a number of major states were forced into bankruptcy. Moreover, the destruction and economic dislocation measured by the loss or transfer of manpower from agriculture and industry, the high costs of borrowing on domestic and international financial markets, and the disruption of domestic and international trade, all served to make even a successful war a near financial disaster. These circumstances gradually forced the monarchs to share power with the new merchant classes who controlled the financial sinews of war.
By the early 1800s the transition from the old feudal orders to the modern national era was complete insofar as weaponry, tactics, and military organization were concerned. The old monarchical political order hung on for yet another century, but more in form than in substance. Militarily, the pike had all but disappeared from the battlefield, and the new musket infantry had come of age fighting in disciplined linear combat formations. Mobile artillery had also come into its own and had become a major killing combat arm that could be used in coordination with cavalry and infantry. Most importantly, standing armies in a genuine modern sense had come into being, with organization, logistics trains, and hierarchical structures comparable to those found in modern-day armies.
Napoleon introduced a new element into this equation and, in doing so, revolutionized the conduct of war. Until Napoleon, armies were essentially professional forces whose manpower was drawn from the least socially and economically useful elements of the population. Most common soldiers were drawn from the ranks of the urban poor who had no skills, or the excess rural population that had no land. Even the officer corps was drawn from the second and third sons of the nobility, the first son remaining behind to manage the family's estates or business interests. Loyalty of these forces was based largely upon regular pay and draconian discipline. Napoleon's revolution was to introduce the mass citizen army based on conscription, and to develop an officer corps selected for its talent (and ideological loyalty) rather than its social origins. While a number of industrial and agricultural innovations made it possible to extract ever larger numbers of manpower from the economic base without serious disruption, the size of Napoleonic armies was impossible to maintain unless the entire social and economic resources of the state were also mobilized for war. The age of modern war was beginning to dawn.
The old idea of loyalty to the king and regular pay were replaced in the Napoleonic armies with loyalty based upon national patriotism fired by the idea of social revolution. This made it possible for Napoleon to raise mass armies that came to characterize the national armies of the next two centuries. The idea of a "nation in arms" based on national patriotic fervor and sacrifice to ideals meant that all segments of the population were expected to contribute to the war effort. National economies were now marshaled to support war and, in a sense, private control of the resources of war passed under the control of the state. The economic structures of the state were required to produce the sinews of war on command, its weapons and manpower, even to the detriment of other aspects of economic and social activity if necessary. The most significant contribution of the Napoleonic era, then, was the production of a new national model for war.
Historians often call the American Civil War (1860-65) the first truly modern war, for it was the first conflict to take maximum advantage of the new efficiencies of production brought into being by the Industrial Revolution. For the first time a war involved the entire populations of each combatant. Large conscript armies, larger than the world had ever seen, required a large industrial and agricultural base to feed, clothe, and supply them for combat. The Industrial Revolution, most particularly the factory system and machine mass production, along with technological innovations in metallurgy, chemistry, and machine tools, provided for an explosion in military technology. New means of economic organization and impressive increases in productivity made it possible to free large numbers of men for military service without bringing with it serious economic dislocation in the national wartime economy. The newly developed railroad system allowed the transport of men and supplies to support military operations on an unprecedented scale. The result was a war in which the civilian population that manned the productive base of the war machine became at least as important as the war machine itself. It was, as well, the first time that the production base and the civilian industrial manpower pool became legitimate and necessary military targets.
The Crimean War (1853-56) witnessed the first use of rifled and breech-loading cannon by the British army. Both of these improvements had been used as early as the 16th century, but only as prototypes. Technical problems in barrel casting and breech sealing had prevented their development on a wide basis. By the end of the Civil War no fewer than half the Union artillery was comprised of rifled and breech-loading guns. Rifled cannon had longer ranges, more penetrating power, and greater accuracy than the old smoothbore, and had a much greater rate of fire. Improved black powder also added to the shell's velocity and range. Near the end of the war the first primitive recoil mechanisms further increased the rate of fire and accuracy of the rifled field artillery cannon.
The musket, of course, had acquired rifling long before the Crimean War. The most important innovation to Civil War musketry came with the introduction of the conoidal bullet. Shaped like a small egg, it had a hollow "basket" behind the penetrating head. Cast in one piece soft lead, the new bullet expanded the "basket" as the hot combustion gases filled the rear of the bullet upon firing. The soft lead expanded outward to force the raised spirals on the bullet into the rifled grooves in the barrel. The result was greater sealing of the propulsive gases in the barrel and a tighter grasp of the rifling by the bullet. Both range and accuracy increased greatly. During the Civil War a rifled musket could easily kill at 1,000 yards and was deadly accurate at 600 yards.
Near the end of the war the Spencer repeating carbine appeared. This rifle was a .56 caliber repeating firearm with a seven shot capacity. In the hands of a competent rifleman, this weapon could expend all seven rounds in the time it took a musket rifleman to load and fire a single round. Advances were also made in handguns, long the mainstay of the cavalry, that could fire six shots of .44 caliber ball before requiring reloading. Infantry firepower continued to increase with the introduction of the first primitive machine gun, the Gatling Gun. This mechanized contraption was a multibarreled gun which rotated each barrel in succession into firing positions by means of a cast gear as the firing handle was turned. The Gatling Gun was capable of a sustained rate of fire of 100 rounds a minute, almost equal to the rate of fire from 40 infantrymen. By 1900, Hiram Maxim, an American, invented a truly modern machine gun capable of a sustained rate of fire of 600 rounds a minute.
A number of other technologies of the Industrial Revolution were turned to military use during this time. Probably most important for its impact on military operations was the railroad. Industrial nations lived by rail transport, and modern armies soon discovered that it was possible to move very large quantities of men and material over great distances very rapidly by using the rails. Mobility of deployment increased dramatically, as did the means of sustaining large forces in the field over vast distances by supplying them by rail. It is important to remember that until the introduction of the railway to war, no army could move any faster than foot or horse could carry them. A limitation on tactical mobility that was six millennia old disappeared in less than half a decade.
Tinned food, although first used in small amounts by Napoleon, now became common and contributed to logistical capability, as did the first use of condensed food. The telegraph made it possible for the first time for corps and army level commanders to exercise relative tactical control over their subordinate units. When the telegraph was used in conjunction with the railway, it became possible for units to achieve both tactical and strategic surprise at force levels never witnessed before. The iron-clad steam powered ship signalled the end of the era of wood and sail, and the regular use of the balloon for military purposes presaged the use to which the early airplane would be put in the next century.
Behind these military applications lay a multitude of innovations brought into being by the Industrial Revolution. Among the most important of these were the factory system, mass production, and the use of machines to make any number of military weapons and products from canteens to boots to jackets. The factory system represented an entirely new form of socioeconomic organization for work in that it made possible the gathering into one large workplace larger numbers of workers directed at a specific task than had ever been possible before. Mass production, especially Eli Whitney's concept of interchangeability of parts, made possible levels of weapons production never before imagined. Making things by machines meant that rates of production rose to unprecedented levels as energy and mechanical power was applied to the work task. Implements of all types could be manufactured at a faster unit production rate, and since machines do not require rest, productive schedules could be extended around the clock.
The lesson that European powers learned from watching the Civil War from afar was that military might now required a sufficient industrial base and supply of manpower that had, except for the brief period under Napoleon, never before been placed under arms. Unfortunately, none of the European military establishments seem to have appreciated the fact that the Industrial Revolution had brought into being a qualitative change in the nature of combat killing power. As European armies adopted each new weapon, they foolishly retained the traditional and familiar unit formations and battlefield tactics, both of which had already been made fatally obsolete by the range and firepower of the new infantry and artillery weapons. Thus, when the British finally adopted the machine gun to their infantry formations, they assigned only one gun per battalion, relying upon the traditional rifleman to provide the firepower for the defense. Not a single European power recognized that the qualitative change in killing power had made offensive operations a deadly practice. The battlefield advantage had swung almost entirely to the defense.
The lessons regarding manpower and industrial production, however, were not lost on the European general staffs, and the armies of Europe began to expand to record size. These armies created even larger reserve forces that could be mobilized on short notice and moved along military rail nets to augment the standing forces in one large-scale, and almost irreversible, deployment maneuver. The railway officer who could plan and implement deployment schedules became the most valuable officer on the newly created professionalized general staffs. In Germany, almost the entire civilian railway service was staffed by retired professional sergeants still under military obligation as reserve forces. As the Industrial Revolution developed one innovation after another, more and more military applications were found. The result was that the armies of the early 20th century had at their disposal a killing and destructive capacity greater than anything the world had ever seen. The fatal flaw was that they did not know it.
In the half-century between the end of the Civil War and the start of World War I there were no fewer than six military conflicts involving one or more of the major powers as combatants. Almost a score of smaller colonial wars were fought in the same period. These conflicts provided the impetus to apply the inventions and technologies of the Industrial Revolution to new weapons. These frequent, if short, wars provided laboratories to test the new implements of destruction.
Among the more important developments of this period was the total replacement of muzzle-loading smoothbore cannon with rifled breech loaders. By 1890, every major military force in the West was equipped with this type of cannon. Time fuses were developed in France around 1877, and served to make overhead burst artillery more lethal than ever. The first smokeless powder, more stable and potent than black powder, was developed in 1884, and in 1891, the British synthesized a new shell explosive, cordite, that became the standard artillery explosive by 1914. In 1888, modern long-recoil hydraulic cylinders were introduced to stabilize artillery pieces, an improvement that almost tripled the rate of fire and accuracy of field artillery guns. The rifled breech loading artillery gun now operated with "fixed ammunition," brass and steel shells in which powder, fuse, and projectile were one piece. The introduction of shrapnel shells added even more to the destructive power of artillery. In 1896, wire-wound heavy guns were constructed, making gun barrels much stronger and less brittle than cast barrels. A short time later, frettage, a method of manufacture in which hot steel tubes were shrunk one into another to make gun barrels, allowed the introduction of more durable and much higher caliber guns. Improved breeches and gas sealing systems completed the development of artillery in this period. In 1897, the French 75 mm field gun was introduced and incorporated all of the improvements mentioned above. The maximum rate of fire of this gun was 25 rounds per minute. In the 1880s, massive siege cannon, often mounted on railway cars, began to make their appearance as the antidote for hugh concrete and steel fixed fortifications. The Krupp siege cannon, "Big Bertha," could raise an 1800 pound shell 3 miles into the air and hit a target at very high velocity 10 thousand yards away.
In 1870, the French had deployed the mitrailleuse , a highly reliable, if somewhat cumbersome, 25 barrel machine gun capable of firing 125 rounds a minute while accurate at two thousand yards. By 1900 Hiram Maxim had invented a truly modern and portable machine gun with a rate of fire of 600 rounds a minute. At this rate of fire a single machine gun could produce as much fire as 100 riflemen. In 1870, the Prussian Dreyse "needlegun" introduced the modern firing pin system for the rifle, once again increasing rates of fire. The introduction of the magazine (Lee-Enfield) and clip-fed (Mauser, Springfield) bolt-action rifles by the time of the Boer War increased the firepower and mobility of the infantry yet again.
The Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78 was the first war in which the infantry was uniformly equipped with modern repeating rifles and the artillery with breech-loading rifled cannon. By the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) the use of indirect heavy artillery fire was standard military practice. The invention of improved panoramic sights, goniometers for measuring angles, the use of the balloon for directing fire, and the field telephone allowed forward artillery observers to direct artillery fire on targets the gunners could not see. Advances in fire control made it possible for the first time to mass the fire of an entire artillery corps upon a single target.