How and why has war changed as a consequence of industrialisation?
“Whatever happens we have got
The Maxim gun and they have not.”
- Hilaire Belloc
“Military organisations rarely have the opportunity to conduct the dirty business of war. In times of peace they cannot replicate wartime conditions: thus they find it difficult to evaluate the implications of technological and doctrinal changes. It is as if surgeons did not perform surgery for decades and then had to execute thousands of operations in cold, damp conditions, without food or sleep and with rivals shooting at them from the balconies of the operating theatres.”
- Williamson Murray
The process of industrialisation played a key role in the development of the conduct of war between the Napoleonic and First World Wars. However, we must from the very outset recognise two stumbling blocks that can impede any analysis of its impact. First and foremost, though it should scarcely need commenting upon, it serves to note that while industrialisation, as we shall see, had enormous impact on the way armies were raised, equipped and supplies, with knock on effects at most levels of the conduct of war, these changes had an impact only on the character of warfare as it developed from the pre-industrial period to the twentieth century – the objective nature of war it altered not a jot[i]. Second of all, it should be noted that industrialisation beckons to the scholar, Will ‘o the Wisp-like, to dip a toe into the intellectual fever swamp of technological determinism and this should be avoided in assessing its impact.[ii] While acknowledging that revolutionary technological change took place between 1815 and 1914 (and accelerated after that), it is also important to take note of two further factors, which will underpin the following analysis: First, the social and political context in which technological developments took place.[iii] Second, the fact that, while a comparison between, for example, a representative field artillery piece of 1815 vintage and an equivalent piece of kit dating from 1914 demonstrated startling improvements in every measure of effectiveness, this apparently revolutionary change represents the result of a string of minor, incremental improvements over time. Key developments linked (though not necessarily solely so) to industrialisation include the railway and telegraph, expansion in the size of armed forces, steam power and armoured fighting ships at sea and key improvements in artillery and infantry weapons. The practical impact of these developments was seen at all levels – strategic, operational and tactical.
At the strategic level, developments in communications were key, though these developments were slow and should not be overstated.[iv] Most dramatically, the development of the telegraph permitted armies in the field to contact their home governments with relative ease. A system of semaphore telegraphs existed in France in the pre-industrial period, but the development of the electric telegraph – first seen in action in the Crimea – represented an improvement in terms of range, speed and reliability, a situation further improved by the introduction of the Marconi wireless telegraph in 1897.[v] However, although communications between governments and their commanders in the field improved, communications between commanders and their troops saw only minimal improvement.[vi] Faced with the emergence of ever-larger armies without a parallel improvement in communications, commanders were forced to devolve control to ever lower levels. The Crimea demonstrated the worst effects of this, as control was devolved without any accompanying doctrine to inform junior officers’ decisions and ensure the dissemination of best practice. The situation had improved by 1870, but not to a drastic extent, as the performance of the Prussian Guards and of Steinmetz’ corps showcased. Methods of communication were relatively inflexible and immobile, a situation that persisted into the First World War.
At the operational level, the advent of the railway made a significant difference over time. Troops could travel greater distances at greater speeds and be maintained in the field for longer periods away from supply depots. Wounded troops could be evacuated and soldiers could depart from the theatre of operations when on leave.[vii] The employment of railways for military means was incremental, starting in the 1830s when various governments earmarked domestic rail systems as a means to facilitate the rapid deployment of troops from barracks towns to suppress internal insurrection (in 1839 the British deployed troops by rail to suppress a Chartist uprising and the Prussians employed a similar move against revolutionaries in Cracow seven years later)[viii] Use of the railway in inter-state conflict emerged in the 1850s, but revealed major limitations, including a lack of co-ordination and the fact that the movement of troops was easier than the rapid and regular movement of supplies. At this point the technological development of the railway was paired with social and political developments in the field of expanding bureaucracy to create viable systems for the rapid, co-ordinated deployment of troops by rail, which reached fruition in the wars of German unification. Problems persisted, such as the fact that the system tended to break down as troops advanced beyond the railhead. However, given that a two-day march could be compressed into a two-hour rail journey, it would be churlish to deny that the railway had an extensive impact.
Naval developments also had a significant impact on logistics and supply. The availability of steam power to the British and French allowed them to sustain their forces in the Crimea and run rings round the Russians, even though the Russians were operating on their home turf. Naval developments showcase the incremental nature underpinning much of the broad revolutionary change of the period.[ix] Auxiliary steam power was introduced in the 1830s, but sails were not abandoned altogether until the 1880s. Shell firing rifled guns made an appearance in the 1840s and the 1860s saw the beginning of the armouring of ships, partly in response to this.[x] In the 1880s, iron cladding was replaced with steel. In the early years of the twentieth century, coal power was replaced with oil. Meanwhile, paddle propulsion had been replaced by the propeller screw. The speed, range and lethality of naval vessels all increased radically during the period covered. It is difficult to find many similarities between an ironclad or Dreadnought and their Napoleonic cousins. However, it is important to note that for all this, the fundamentals of naval warfare and seapower remained much the same in 1914 as they had been in 1815.[xi]
Industrialisation is often linked with the growth in the size of armed forces. This is correct but misleading. Industrialisation was a necessary but not a sufficient condition in explaining the expansion of armed forces. Key factors in the emergence of mass armies were increasing population size and the political will for mass mobilisation, generally emerging through the phenomenon of nationalism.[xii] Additionally, the political scene in much of continental Europe grew to support the idea of linkage between military service and citizenship. The leap in size between ancien regime armies and French revolutionary armies was both greater and substantially more rapid than the leap in army size between 1815 and 1914. In the eighteenth century, armies peaked at around 80,000 men in size. French revolutionary armies could muster up to 600,000. To place the armies of industrialisation in perspective, in 1870 the Prussians were able to deploy 1,200,000 men and in 1914 Germany put 3,400,000 men in the field.[xiii] These were major increases, but clearly it is inadequate merely to place credit at the door of industrialisation. It is also important to note that due to a combination of different strategic concerns, geopolitical factors and social and political mores, neither Britain – for much of the period the gold standard for industrialised power – nor the United States (with the dramatic exception of the American Civil War, which displayed a fusion of emerging industrial methods and technology and pre-nineteenth century national mobilisation) maintained large conscript armies. The equation industrialisation = significant army expansion is simply not good enough. What industrialisation did was to make these armies more sustainable. Revolutionary and Napoleonic armies largely had to subsist off the land they occupied.[xiv] Thus, when the Russian campaign took place the logistical and supply system quickly collapsed and insufficient food could be foraged. Industrialisation permitted these armies to be supplied in a reasonably efficient manner (though the Crimean War demonstrates that there was a steep learning curve) both through the railway and the advent of the steam ship and through the advent of canned food on a large scale.[xv]
Industrialisation also helped states sustain prolonged war efforts. This development is first showcased through the example of Britain during the Napoleonic Wars. Britain certainly benefited from nascent industrialisation and the fruits of industrial production would spread both horizontally and vertically as the nineteenth century progressed. However, the sustainability of the British war effort also stemmed from factors not related to industrialisation – notably the development of banking methods and the establishment of a modern system of credit. These different factors were mutually supporting and self-sustaining, a pattern common in much of the development seen through the period of industrialisation.
The development of artillery provides another excellent case study in the incremental nature of much of the development and reform that took place during the period. Modern quick-firing artillery was the end result of many different and often unrelated improvements that came together to form a more or less revolutionary whole. The constituent developments can be identified as; smokeless powder, developed in 1861 but not widely deployed until a decade later, which not only permitted artillery units to fire without revealing their position but increased the power of the charge and therefore the range of the shot and resulted in a relatively high-visibility battlefield so that this increased range could be employed productively; the 1852 Boxer time fuse for shrapnel shells, which made explosive shells increasingly reliable and discriminate; the percussion fuse which emerged in 1870; the recoilless gun carriage (permitting the gun to be fired repeatedly without time-consuming re-laying of the 1890s; the auto-ejecting breech block, also of the 1890s, which massively increased firing speed from an average of three rounds a minute to between fifteen and thirty and – most importantly – mid-nineteenth century standardisation of machine tools and the development in the 1860s of increasingly efficient methods of steel production which increased output and decreased cost (between 1865 and 1879, British steel production quadrupled).[xvi] Many of these developments fed into each other and showcase the impact of industrialisation in microcosm. Steel was available prior to the 1860s and had many advantages – notably strength and lightness. However, the manufacturing capability did not exist to exploit it in a cost effective manner. Similarly, breech loading guns had long been available, from breech loading fixed naval guns from the pre-industrial age to the 1855 Armstrong breech loading system. However, production in iron was not satisfactory in terms of either safety or reliability and until the 1860s, muzzle loading remained more reliable. It was the drawing of these different developments together that ultimately produced a “revolutionary” weapon and the revolutionary nature of the change is most obvious in hindsight. Certainly there was no technological “big bang” for serving officers at the time.
The development of artillery and of rifle technology (a similarly incremental tale – if not more so - that resulted in significantly increased range, accuracy, weight of fire [the latter being more important than the former], rate of fire and – an important point that is often overlooked – bullet penetration) had a significant impact at the tactical level.[xvii] This is most often seen to manifest itself in the “empty battlefield” from the latter stages of the American Civil War onwards, where weapon lethality resulted in infantry going to ground. Part and parcel of this was the emergence of fire-and-manoeuvre tactics, the fundamentals of which persist to this day relatively unchanged. The recognition that massed frontal assaults were costly (though, contrary to popular belief, the historical record does not support the notion that frontal assaults were rendered futile) resulted in a focus on flanking manoeuvres at both the operational and the tactical levels. This was perceived to require ever-larger conscript fighting forces and yet paradoxically, manoeuvre, decentralised command and tactical flanking was seen as beyond the grasp of conscripts, which contributed to some of the confusion in the development of theories of attack in the run-up to the First World War (culminating in the first day on the Somme, where plans were devised, reasonably enough in theory, around the perceived limitations in performance of very raw non-regular troops).[xviii]
It is also of paramount importance to note that one of the key advances – if not the key advance - provided by industrialisation was to make existing theoretical ideas practical.[xix] We have already seen that ideas for “modern” cannon existed before the technological advances that brought them into general use existed. The point is that a good idea may have no military utility if it cannot be produced in good time, in large numbers and at reasonable cost. History is littered with ideas that came before their time and the supposedly reactionary ways of the top brass rarely provide for a realistic explanation for their failure. Major Patrick Ferguson developed a rifle during the American Revolution. It was a very fine piece of kit with many advantages. It could be loaded quickly and fired from prone. It was highly accurate. The breech loading removed the difficulty of forcing the ball ammunition through the rifle grooves. Yet it never went into major production (Ferguson’s small ranger unit was equipped with the weapon and created havoc for the rebels, but when the unit was almost wiped out and Ferguson killed, it lapsed into obscurity), not because British officers were hidebound and mentally deficient, but because brilliant though it was it was simply not practical given the manufacturing methods available at the time. It was a bespoke, labour intensive weapon. Similarly, the Chinese developed gunpowder weapons in the thirteenth century but in order to have broad military utility a weapon must be capable of being produced in large numbers to relatively uniform quality. This was industrialisation’s great achievement.
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Black, Jeremy (2004), Rethinking Military History (London: Routledge)
Black, Jeremy, “Determinisms and Other Issues”, The Journal of Military History 68 (October 2004), pp.1217-1232
Black, Jeremy, ed. (2003), War in the Modern World Since 1815 (London: Routledge)
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Holden Reid, Brian (1999), The American Civil War and the Wars of the Industrial Revolution (London: Cassell)
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Howes, Philip (1998), The Catalytic Wars (London: Minerva Press)
Jensen, Geoffrey and Wiest, Andrew, eds. (2001), War in the Age of Technology (New York: New York University Press)
Jones, Archer (1987), The Art of Warfare in the Western World (New York: Barnes and Noble)
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Parker, Geoffrey, ed. (1995), The Cambridge Illustrated History of Warfare (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)
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Sheffield, Gary (2001), Forgotten Victory: The First World War Myths and Realities (London: Headline)
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[i] As indeed it could not. See Gray (1999) in general
[ii] Black (2004i). Technological determinism is the true hobgoblin of small minds. And senior officers in independent air forces. Not that the author suggests that the latter necessarily possesses the former.
[iii] On revolutionary change, see Knox & Murray (2001), p.77. On the oft neglected role of social and political factors in the historiography, see Black (2004), pp.104-111 and Black, ed. (2003), p.201
[iv] Black, ed. (2003), p.202
[v] Strachan (1983), p.124
[vii] Howard (1976), p.98
[viii] Howard (1976), p.97; Holden Reid (1999), p.25
[ix] Parker, ed. (1995), p.243
[xi] Black, ed. (2003), p.205. The new requirement for coaling stations and other refuelling points represents one area of change.
[xii] Strachan (1983), pp. 108-109 and Wawro (2000), p.3
[xiv] The Duke of Wellington’s Peninsula army represents a notable exception and there is something good waiting to be written on the positive impact the relatively sophisticated and thorough logistical system employed by Wellington had on British operational and strategic performance. That said, it should be noted that the British enjoyed the advantage of a relatively small army and the luxury of operating on friendly territory.
[xv] Methods for preserving food in sealed glass bottles predated the industrial period. This was very much a bespoke practice, however and the productions of the necessary materials was time consuming and labour intensive. The advent of tin canning allowed existing methods to be reproduced reliably and in bulk.
[xvi] See, variously, Wawro (2000), p.153; Strachan (1983), p.111 and Howes (1998), p.153-65
[xvii] On the weight of fire vs. accuracy and individual marksmanship debate, see Jensen & Wiest, eds. (2001), pp.29-34
[xviii] Black, ed. (2003), p.204. Trivia: As is more of less common knowledge by now, the photograph of advancing troops is actually of a mock advance staged as part of the filming of a propaganda film to boost morale during the Great War. However, audiences at the time were not aware of this, believing it to be footage from the front - the film is widely regarded as being one of the first exposures of home front audiences to the ghastliness of frontline combat - and it backfired. Tickets for the first showing of the film were in great demand and the audience arrived in collective high spirits but at the point when one of the advancing troops (apparently) falls dead in the wire, a woman in the audience cried out "Mr God! Oh my God, they're dying! They're dying!" An uproar ensued, with a number of female members of the audience becoming hysterical.
[xix] Black (2004), pp.114-116