Making Modern World: Modernising War, 1756-1914 Introduction

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Making Modern World: Modernising War, 1756-1914

Military History: a subject that has suffered from a dominant orthodoxy – weapons, battles and campaigns, leaders, techniques, morale and sometimes logistics.
Criticism: too narrow a focus; suspicion that the subject isn’t truly academic or is the preserve of weapons-fetishists, the right wing. Seemed to be an anachronistic approach to history (purely politics and ‘great men’).
New Military History: an attempt to include the social history of servicemen, women in war, civilians (eg in garrisons, or as refugees and victims), culture, and economics.
Criticism: ‘history of war with all the fighting taken out’: the key aspect of war is the fighting – it’s where the decisions are made and often where the conflict is resolved
New debates:

Modern war’? Modernity is a relative concept. It’s not clear what was modern, or when, as it was always changing. Furthermore, apparently archaic armies, under the right circumstances, could still defeat so-called ‘modern’ armies.
Paradigmatic concepts (favoured by military personnel) – but history of war doesn’t fit the model. American armed services refer to their ‘full-spectrum dominance’ (air waves, land, sea and air forces, intelligence), but that doesn’t prevent casualties to insurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Western-centric: non-Western forms of war neglected because of rise of the West in 18th-20th centuries. Comparatively little study of wars in Africa and Asia in 20th century compared with campaigns involving Western powers (e.g. Indonesia in WWII, Africa in the Cold War years)
Now (2006), Niall Ferguson posits that there was not a series of wars in the 20 century but a single hundred years’ war – This is unconvincing, roots of the First World War lay in the 19 century, so why not say war was a continuum for 150, 200, or even 300 years. Clearly there were episodes of peace even when causes of conflict were still existent (Britain 1919-39).
Modalities of war: are terrorists and guerrillas any different? If war is not declared, is it still a war? Are civil wars examined as critically, or by the same criteria, as conventional wars between states? Growing awareness that unlimited force does not guarantee success in asymmetrical warfare.
Changing Fronts in Warfare


Increasing sophistication, standardization, mass production (cheap, abundant, replaceable parts)… increasing lethality in the hands of fewer and fewer men (musket - 100 metres, potential to kill one every minute; cruise missile – 100s of miles, could detonate a nuclear device and kill 000s.)

But – wrongly attributed with ‘determining’ the outcome of wars. It is simply not true that the side with the most sophisticated weapons won the battles/war – colonial wars in 19th century, Vietnam War and Afghanistan-Soviet struggle in 20th century.
Wars are decided by a range of factors, but technology is given an undue emphasis in Western history because:

  • Explains colonialism and ‘Western’ dominance [only in the last 50 years of colonialism in fact]

  • Nuclear weapons – can’t dispute their power to kill and destroy

  • The rise of air power which has given the West distinct advantages since 1942

  • Military-Industrial Complex – vested interests in military organizations and Western arms industries to emphasis need for the latest technology… This can be pushed too far, but the West attributes its success to better weapons and technology advantages.


Cicero: ‘The Sinews of War are infinite money’

The Military Revolution Debate of the 1970s-80s centred around the evolution of modern states and standing armies. Had the growth of mass armies in the late sixteenth to seventeenth centuries, which demanded greater organization in state finances, caused the creation of modern nation states (with bureaucracies replacing old, inefficient dynastic practices of revenue collection and land tenures)?
Geoffrey Parker believed this was the case. Others disagreed. Jeremy Black believed the growth of the modern nation state and the ‘modern’ armies did not really occur until the financial revolution of the 18th Century.
The fact is that armies were expensive. They needed:

Uniforms, accoutrements, weapons, powder and shot, horses, wagons, fodder, rations, and pay.

By the 18th century, some commanders did not dare risk their armies in battle lest they lose the men and perhaps the only force for defending the state. Chivalric protocols survived (eg besieged garrisons were allowed to capitulate with honour), and some wars were more about manoeuvre than battles.
Yet, before we assume that campaigns were becoming bloodless, remember that rebellions were also accompanied by tremendous slaughter. Looting could augment soldiers and officers pay – especially at sea where all ranks got a portion of the ‘prize money’ for capturing an enemy vessel.
But costs increased in the 19th and 20th centuries.
[For statistics see Niall Ferguson’s Cash Nexus in the library]
The increasing costs of war and of armies put the less developed nations of the world at a distinct disadvantage. They could not afford the reforms necessary.

Strategy – plan, closely related to political task

Tactics – techniques, on field
1750s: The Seven Years’ War

Firearms of poor quality:

Inaccurate, slow rate of fire, short range

Use en masse, deliver fire in volleys to maximize the psychological effect of casualties and control the firing-loading process

This necessitated dense, close-order formations (fire to frontage ratio) – which, in turn, meant drill (repeated standard movements) to avoid confusion. This also gave rise to the idea that troops (poorly educated) needed close control by nominated leaders (drawn from the social elites).
Elite status was afforded to units of greater loyalty, experience… and physical size.
Limitations of the technology: Battles therefore fought at close quarters
The same criteria listed here also applied to naval warfare
Close, mass formations gradually gave way to loose, dispersed positioning, which in turn demanded greater initiative and intelligence from each soldier
However, there was a gap in the change effected. Weapons technology tended to develop ahead of tactical changes until 1916 – so tight formations persisted long after they were appropriate – resulting in heavy casualties… (eg: Gravelotte-St Privat, August 1870 – 2,000 Prussian Guards decimated on the slopes up to St Privat in half an hour)
This also affected non Western armies.
In 1898, at Omdurman, Sudanese put their faith in religious deliverance, a massed formation and the charge – 000s of casualties for loss of c. 40.

Other African states suffered heavy losses against breech loaders, artillery and machine guns.

Not a case of ‘stupidity’ – many nations (incl Germany and Japan in WWII) put their faith in moral powers if their technology is deficient (kamikaze-suicide bombing, SS-elitism, racial supremacy, moral-religious cause).
But the ‘shock effect’ has not entirely vanished. Whilst the shock of the charge is no longer delivered by knee-to-knee cavalry formations, it is still manifest in armoured warfare, air strikes and waves of missile attacks.
New techniques have evolved for fighting in a more urbanized, global environment.

The Western Front 1914

By the end of 1914 it was clear that, despite the principles of warfare had not changed (such as the importance of concentration of force, seizing and maintaining the initiative, the value of enveloping an enemy/deception and surprise, the economy of effort to achieve a particular task), the techniques by which men fought had changed.

Troops in the open, even when dispersed, were vulnerable to rifle, machine gun and artillery fire. In the autumn of 1914, France suffered 1 million casualties: their troops were dressed in uniforms unchanged since the 1870s (red pantaloons, dark blue jackets, red kepi). The accepted response, from the 1860s onwards, had been for static troops to entrench themselves.
Dug in troops were well protected – and could break up an attack as the defensive capacity of their weapons (high rates of fire, accurate, long range) had increased.
In Europe and Japan, it was felt that professional troops should, nevertheless, press home an attack to close with the enemy. In the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), the Japanese Army had hurled itself at the trenches of the Russians around Port Arthur and suffered heavy losses. Yet the success of the Japanese (Port Arthur fell in 1905), and of the Prussian armies in 1870-71 against France (Franco-Prussian War) seemed to suggest the offensive was still the way to win a war.
Whilst many critics have suggested the Allied officers wasted the lives of their men in unnecessary assaults in the First World War, it is still true to say that wars cannot be won by remaining on the defensive indefinitely.
Even in guerrilla wars, such as the Vietnam War, the insurgents must eventually go on to the offensive (they did, once the US had pulled out in 1973 – South Vietnam was defeated in 1975).
What was also evident by 1914 though was the vast scale of wars. Whilst the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, which brought to end the Napoleonic Wars with the defeat of France, was fought on a field no more 3 km (two miles) wide, the Battle of the Marne was fought on a frontage of 48 km (30 miles) and by the end of 1914 a continuous line of trenches had been dug from the North Sea to the border of Switzerland, a distance of 600 km (500 miles). The Eastern Front was so long that it was impossible to man its entire length, giving rise to episodes of more fluid fighting.
Firepower: Range and Accuracy

So what was causing this linear extension of the battlefield?

Changes in technology were certainly important.
The weapon systems of the 18th-early 19th centuries were smooth-bore (like a shotgun)

Short range – therefore needed line of sight to target, could fire a solid shot from a cannon half a mile (1 km) (in dry conditions, ball would bounce through enemy formations for another ¾ of a mile).

Rifling in the 1850s (a groove cut into the inner surface of a barrel) gave a projectile a ‘spin’ which improved accuracy. Closer fitting bullets (which heated and then expanded to fit the groove), such as the minié bullet, prevented the waste of gases behind the projectile, giving greater range.
By the 1860s, rifling was a standard requirement in firearms and artillery in Western armies and navies.
Many surplus smooth bore weapons were sold to African and Asian states.
However, these technical processes and precision-engineering, now possible because of Western industrialisation, could not be matched by non-Western states – a technology gap had appeared.
Against the Zulus, Pathans, Persians, Moroccans, Filipinos, Burmese and others, the Western powers could use weapons of precision.
Firepower: Rate of Fire

But it was also the rate of fire that changed.

Breech-loading rifles and artillery replaced the slow, muzzle loading technique.
Once again, only possible with precision-engineering.
A musketeer was only able to load and fire his weapon about 2-3 times a minute (if well trained). There were many misfires (firing mechanism made of flint – sometimes failed to create a spark).
A riflemen could open the breech, insert a cartridge, fire and reload up to 7 times a minute in the 1870s and, by 1914, expert riflemen in the British Army could fire 15 deliberately aimed shots a minute (with a magazine fitted) and some many more.
Guards at Mons, 1914, fired up to 600 rounds per day per man.
Being able to do lying down meant that concealment of the firer was possible, a fact assisted by the introduction of smokeless propellant from 1885.
Firepower: Machine Guns

Machine guns epitomised the industrial age. A weapon that could fire repeatedly, up to 500 rounds per minute – and more by the end of WWI.

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There were problems.

In the ACW (1861-65), they came in at the end of the war and because of the difficulty of supplying them with enough ammunition, they were limited to sieges.

In the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), the French Army regarded its Mitrailleuse MG as a war winning, secret weapon, but they tended to keep them too far back to affect the outcome of engagements (treated them like artillery).

In the 1880s, machine guns could still jam, especially in desert conditions (Sudan and Morocco – gun teams annihilated).

However, MGs could create ‘beaten zones’ of fire. During the First World War, MGs were increasingly used in an ‘indirect role’ – firing showers of bullets at a high angle to rain down on critical points that were out of sight – a technique also used by artillery from the end of the 19th century. This increased the killing-capacity of the weapons.
Effect of Firepower: Changing Tactics

But it was also an extension of the battlefield in depth…

To prevent trench lines, or positions, being overrun, successive lines were created in depth.
Wars of manoeuvre appeared to be impossible – but that’s not quite true. On the Western Front, the flanks were secured and it was only possible to ‘bite and hold’, not breakthrough. Assaults were costly because of the firepower capacity of an entrenched army, and they had to made head on.
However, in Palestine in 1917, the Allied armies consistently outflanked their Turkish adversaries. On the Eastern Front, Russian, German and Austrian armies were often forced to manoeuvre because of the vast distances involved. Cavalry remained indispensable in the non-Western theatres as a means of deploying rapidly, although fighting on horseback was less common.
On the Western Front, by 1917, the Germans had developed new depth tactics (later used by the Russians in the Second World War). They placed an outpost line, thinly held, to absorb the weight of Allied firepower, and then expected to lose successive lines. When the Allied assault began to peter out (exhausted troops, low of ammunition, and depleted by losses), the Germans would launch vigorous counter-attacks.
In addition, in the final German offensives of 1918, the assaults were led by small, dedicated teams with bombs and light machine guns. They tried to get into depth as fast as possible, ignoring or bypassing opposition. These sturmtruppen (storm troops) enjoyed an elite status and after the war they became the inspiration for Hitler’s SA and SS.
The advantages of remaining on the defensive were, in fact, short-lived: tanks led attacks from 1916 and began to effect considerable changes from 1917. It was possible, using armoured warfare, to seize ground in depth as long as the infantry were able to consolidate the gains.
Moreover, by 1918, the Allies had become proficient at combined arms operations (closely co-ordinating artillery fire, MG fire, infantry and armour, and air attacks) which enabled them to smash through the Germans on the Hindenburg Line in September-November 1918.
This final drama of the war has often been overlooked by those who seek to portray the First World War only as a pointless waste of human life.
For all the alleged incompetence of the ‘Butchers and Bunglers’, the high command of the Western Allies, they still defeated the German Army in battle.
Tactical principles established in WWI remained largely unchanged in WWII.

More rapid firing weapons, and greater mobilisation of manpower, required the engagement of the civilian economy to a far greater degree.

These systems were greatly improved, speeding up the delivery of supplies and ammunition, troops and weapons to the fighting fronts.
Conscription: why armies got bigger

Armies had grown from the 17th Century, but population growth, improved bureaucracies and taxation made it possible to raise even larger forces.

Lazare Carnot’s call for volunteers at the start of the revolutionary war – the harbinger of ‘total war’ where all men were eligible to be called up by the state. But why necessary?
In 1792, France surrounded by enemies – Britain, Austria, the German states, Spain, the Italian states were initially delighted that France had an internal revolt but were soon eager to crush the republicans and their anti-monarchical ideology. The French royal army had fragmented. The number of volunteers was insufficient to defend the borders – so Carnot raised a conscript force – the Levee en Masse.
The costs were so vast that the revolutionary government advocated conquest – (Marat) ‘to rid France of 300,000 brigands’. This expansionist policy gave Napoleon Bonaparte his opportunity to increase his powers. He militarised the French state to an unprecedented degree.
Yet, in the mid-19th century, mass armies had been replaced by smaller professional ones with a large reserve (men who had done a short period as a conscript [or volunteer in Britain’s case], before returning to civilian life). These reservists, first constituted by the Prussian reformer, Albrecht von Roon in the 1860s, was soon adopted across Europe.
In the ACW, conscription was introduced once the flow of volunteers had dried up – a situation Britain faced too in 1916. The other European states simply conscripted vast numbers of men from the outbreak of the war in 1914.
In non-Western states, there was a great variety of practices.

In west Africa in the 1870s, Toure Samori led an army made up of a corps d’elite of professional warriors raised from each of the areas he governed, but these were augmented by levies who were called up in times of emergency.

The Zulu empire of Shaka in the 1830s in southern Africa was entirely militarised with all adult men expected to form part of the army, specific impi, or regiments, being based on their marital status, experience and age.
The Ottoman Turkish Army was entirely reformed in the 1820s, with the traditional elite military class of Janissaries being abolished in favour of westernised regiments of conscripted men.
The Chinese army was divided into ‘professionals’ and levies, but in the 1840s one of the armies that faced the Europeans consisted of a vast bodyguard who indulged in poetry competitions but did little fighting, whilst the levies were poorly equipped and armed. Their main weapons were swords, bamboo spears and a bamboo musket that they loaded by dropping a charge into the barrel, hitting the butt on the ground and then firing.
Tribesmen of the North West Frontier of British India gathered in ad hoc lashkars (war parties), from 30-200 men and tended to follow inspirational leaders or mullahs (religious teachers).
Tribal tactics varied: some preferred to charge to close with their enemies and make maximum use of bladed weapons, others preferred sniping – withdrawing as soon as Western forces attacked them. In many African communities, display was far more important that victory. War was a means to demonstrate your courage and earn status, to loot and to capture slaves or women: European notions of conquest, inflicting heavy casualties and occupation were entirely alien to them
Nationalism and War

18th century – service in the army was ‘mercenary’ (for pay) and loyalty was to a local commander who served a dynast as a part of the social system. Soldiers were motivated by:


Discipline, (toughest perhaps in the Prussian Army) – flogging was common and could be imposed for minor misdemeanours,

Adventure, (dull rural life, village politics)

To escape a sentence by a court, or an irate father if a village girl had been made pregnant…

Yet in the French revolution, a sense of national service/duty was being developed – this itself was an extension of an older chivalric and feudal code of serving a social elite in return for protection and status.
The Marseillese, the French anthem which stressed the need to defend ‘la patrie’, the Fatherland, was used a mean to create a common unity and nationalism.
The army was thus the school of the nation in Germany. Few Germans had a sense of national identity in the 18th century, identifying themselves by their local or regional position (Thuringians, Saxons, Swabians). By the close of the 19th century, these identities had been eroded in favour of a German nationality.
The awakening of a sense of national identity was clearly a problem for the multi-racial Habsburg Empire. It continued to stress a loyalty to the old Kaiser, Franz-Josef, and then Karl, throughout the war.
The Europeans, ironically, imparted this sense of national identity into their colonial subjects. Nevertheless, they were able to maintain considerable loyalty through selective recruitment, patronage, pay and status. The Indian Army of the Second World War, for example, was the largest volunteer army of all time and it was constituted to serve a foreign power – Britain. France too was able to call upon colonial troops to fight in Europe in WWI, and as late as the Algerian War (1962+), it was able to recruit 500,000 Harkis (levies) to support the colonial regime.
Limited War and Total War

We have already noted that 18th century armies regarded manoeuvre as vital. If an enemy could be forced into a siege, or simply cut off from its depots, negotiations would commence.

Clausewitz famously argued that war was the ‘extension of politics with an admixture of other means’. Campaigns were therefore concluded with a new political arrangement.
Napoleon exploded this idea with decisive battles – actively sought out. His aim was to destroy his enemies’ forces and impose a settlement. He did so first in northern Italy in 1796 and repeated the formula many times until 1815.
Nevertheless, this argument is too simplistic. The American Revolutionary War (1775-1783) had not been fought to the 18th century ideal – there was unconventional fighting alongside the set-piece battles. In addition, some of the 18th century campaigns had been punctuated with hard-fought, decisive and bloody actions – Blenheim, Minden, and Leuthen.
In fact, taking a global view and long view indicates the weakness of a Eurocentric paradigm. There have been a number of limited wars, globally, throughout this period.
The concept of Total War is always associated with the massive mobilisation of resources in the two world wars, but the efforts of the Confederacy in the ACW, where almost every resource was mobilised, suggests that, whilst the Union was fighting the conflict with one hand behind its back, the South was engaged in a life-or-death struggle.
This would also be true of the Afrikaner Republics in the South African war of 1899-1902. By the end of the war, the two states were devastated and every man was engaged in the war in one way or another – either as a guerrilla (bitter-enders) or fighting alongside the British (hans-oppers) to bring the war to an end.
Similar analogies might be made with Vietnam, Angola or Mozambique in the later 20th century.
This would challenge the Clausewitzian notion of two distinct types of warfare.

The rise of secular values in the West from the 18th century led to the redefinition of the conduct of war, the treatment of enemies, casualties, civilians and prisoners.

There were efforts to regulate war:

1865 – Geneva Convention (originally dealing with the wounded, but now a range of issues)

1899 – ban on exploding bullets (dum-dum ammunition), asphyxiating gases, incendiary projectiles (but used in WWI)
Nationalism and the desire to protect citizens/state has created a tension with the notion that killing is ‘wrong’ (more next time)
There have been attempts to prevent or ban war as an instrument of policy, or to ban certain weapons (nuclear weapons and landmines) through organizations (League of Nations, UN), legal powers, and pressure groups (Conscientious Objectors, CND, Stop the War). All have failed.
In some non-Western countries, there are, by contrast, popular demonstrations in favour of war, or for the acquisition of nuclear weapons (Pakistan, Iran).
In 1914, there was also popular support for war across Europe.
To sustain a war effort amongst a population, enemies were demonized, (especially the leadership) but this gave license for atrocities in many cases.
Efforts to control soldiers are common. Trained to kill their enemies, soldiers in many national armies are nevertheless issued with rules of engagement, codes of conduct and are subject to military discipline.
And media scrutiny.

This calls into question the application of the humanitarian limits on war – There are still anomalies, for example, in the treatment of prisoners of war. In inter-state wars, they must be accorded protection, must not be made to do war work and should be able to communicate with their families – but they are not prosecuted. In guerrilla wars and cases of terrorism, prisoners are treated as criminals and dealt with by courts. In the case of Guantanamo Bay, the American Army believes that it has to hold its inmates to prevent them from participating in a global terror campaign and to extract intelligence from them – the aim is simply to ‘keep them out of circulation’.

Home Fronts

Returning to the West, the concept of a ‘Home Front’ only emerged in the First World War because of the greater industrialisation of warfare.

Civilians were categorised according to the needs of the economy. ‘Reserved Occupations’ in factories, mines and munitions took precedence over service in the armed forces. That said, many tasks were taken over by women, particularly in medicine, communications/clerical work and transport.
The Hindenburg Plan in Germany gave the armed forces total priority over the needs of the civilian population. Under its regulations lead and copper piping were stripped from the streets, civilian rations were reduced, and strict conditions were placed on consumption and movement.
Civilians were thus incorporated into the ‘war effort’. Their morale, their willingness to take the punishment of losses, of hardship and restriction could decide the outcome of a campaign. In France, some soldiers mutinied at their conditions on the Chemin des Dames in 1917, applying the rules of the trade union to the predicament. In the case of Germany, Austria and Russia, the civilian populations reached the limit of their endurance in 1917-18 and revolted, bringing to an end the regime which had failed them.
Not surprisingly, this critical role of the civilian economy indicated that defeating the capacity of the enemy to fight was as important as beating him on the battlefield.

In the ACW, the Union blockaded the Confederates’ Southern coast. General Sherman marched his army through Georgia and South Carolina, destroying everything in their path along a 40 mile front.

In WWI, air bombardment of factories and civilian centres began. This reached its culmination in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, and the Cold War threat of all-out destruction of an opponent’s cities.
In the Second World War, civilians were subjected to area bombardment to disrupt communications, destroy the capacity of industry to function and to lower civilian morale to breaking point. In fact, economies and civilian morale proved remarkably resilient, especially under the lash of wartime state restrictions, and encouraged by a nationalist agenda.
It is also worth noting that, for the citizen soldiers of the First World War, their endurance of the trench stalemate was the reason why that war was fought in the way it was. The states of Europe didn’t just possess the capacity to wage an industrial war, they had populations willing to take the casualties and to put up with, even embrace, the trial of strength for their nation.
In the case of Germany, the fact that the people were willing to endure a second round of this punishment tells us a great deal about the nature of European society.
It is also important in understanding that wars are not determined by technology but by the willingness of the people to fight, and to take casualties.
Whilst this lecture might have revealed something about the relativist concept of modernisation in war, it perhaps reminds us of a more significant continuity: that people around the world are still prepared to take up arms to settle a political dispute.
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