THE cautious observer who tries to deduce guidance for the future from the experience of the past will do well, when war is his theme of study, to find out what the experts of the past were saying and thinking about war before it came. If he does so he will discover that, within the period in which science has seriously applied itself to the perfection of means of destruction, those experts who have been rash enough to utter prophecies have with very rare exceptions been proved wrong.

The rapid collapse of the regular army of France in 1870 took the military world completely by surprise. Even in Germany at that time the experts were at first unprepared and German General Headquarters, under the leadership of the elder von Moltke, did not at all appreciate the tactical effect of the breach loading rifle. Knowledge drifted back to them from the front; it was not imposed by them from behind. Military opinion was in general unprepared for either the result or the methods of the Russo-Japanese War; the length of the battles of Liaoyang and Mukden was put down as an exceptional phenomenon, due in part to the methodical caution of the Japanese, in part to the peculiar characteristics of the theatre of war. There were few military thinkers in Europe who were not surprised at the ease with which the United States overcame Spain.

Many more examples of the same kind could be taken from the history of the last fifty years. The fact is that as the application of science to industry and manufacture has developed, so has the power to produce new and more perfect weapons increased; but while the effect of scientific improvements upon the former can be and is thoroughly tested, the complete effect of new weapons cannot be tested in time of peace. "In war," said Napoleon, "the moral is to the physical as three to one," and all later experience of war has served to confirm the truth of that saying. It was not merely or even chiefly the effect of the fire of the German heavy howitzers upon the forts of Liege, Namur and Antwerp which brought about the rapid fall of those great fortresses. We know now that lines of trenches held by resolute men could have with-stood attack for a long time without the aid of any forts. It was the moral effect on the Belgians of the collapse of the defences upon which they had learned to rely which made it seem useless to them to attempt to oppose to an unexpected form of attack an untried form of defence.

A target has no flesh, no blood, no nerves, and tests on the ranges in time of peace are therefore an unreliable guide as to what will happen in war. Jules Verne and H. G. Wells have shown us that human imagination is capable of forecasting with a reasonable degree of accuracy the future developments of science. But not even these prophets have been able to foretell accurately the effect of the inventions which they foresaw upon the habits and mentality of the men and women who use those inventions.

How wrong were the prophets of 1914! With the single known exception of Lord Kitchener, they proclaimed in Great Britain, in France and in Germany that a great European war must of necessity be short. Our socialists are wont to denounce the Great War as the outcome of the machinations of the international financiers, as a capitalist intrigue. In point of fact, if there was one body of men who more than another was reduced to panic, it was the financiers. They could not conceive that society could exist for any length of time without the elaborate and complex machinery which they had created. It was beyond their powers of imagination to conceive of a great modern state deliberately destroying its economic and financial systems and building up another. Therefore with one voice they proclaimed that the Great War would be short. The soldiers followed their lead, and declared that while the financiers, who surely knew best, were certain that the resources of no state were equal to a prolonged struggle between nations in arms, they for their part were equally certain that human endurance could not long stand the strain of subjection to modern means of destruction. One side or the other would collapse before long. The war would be over by Christmas.

Germany, which was militarily the best prepared of the belligerents, had not expected a prolonged war any more than the others. All her plans were based upon a rapid conquest of France, to be followed by a more leisurely progress against Russia. Having full knowledge of the number and nature of the Belgian and French fortresses which she would find barring her way, she had made fuller and more complete preparations for siege warfare than had her enemies. So when trench warfare supervened she was to that extent more ready for it, but in the spring of 1915 she like the others found herself deficient in the artillery, shells and other munitions which the experience of battles in the trench zone proved to be necessary. Nor was it only in the forecasts of the general nature of the war that the military experts of Europe proved to be at fault. The detailed data upon which their plans and preparations were based proved to be defective.

From the signing of the Treaty of Frankfort, which ended the Franco-German war of 1870-71, the probability of the eventual renewal of the struggle had been in the minds of European soldiers. In the two countries chiefly concerned the professional soldiers thought of little else, their whole lives were devoted to the study of the probable nature of the prospective war and the best methods of conducting it. Elaborate and costly systems of espionage were built up in order to obtain information. Germany in particular was credited with knowing everything of military importance which took place in the countries of possible enemies. France, whose very existence was at stake, was believed to be well-informed as to the military preparations of her chief enemy. Then not long before the outbreak of war came the development of the aeroplane; while rudimentary compared with its present powers, it appeared to be at least sufficiently effective to ensure timely knowledge of the movements of large bodies of troops. It seemed in the summer of 1914 to be altogether incredible that whole armies would be maneuvred in secret.

Yet what happened in August, 1914? The French plan of campaign, the famous Plan 17, had been gradually and slowly evolved by the best available military brains of France. It was based upon information painfully collected during a long term of years. The probability of invasion of Belgium by Germany had for years been a military commonplace. Despite all this, when the invasion actually took place and the two armies were locked in conflict, the French calculations were suddenly discovered to be erroneous. The whole basis of their plan of campaign was defective because they had grossly underestimated the strength of the forces which Germany could put into the field. The French plan was based on information to the effect that the main German attack would be made from the direction of Metz, and that the Germans had not sufficient troops to extend their front to the west of the Meuse. The error was not discovered until more than 400,000 Germans had crossed the Meuse and the capital of Belgium had been occupied. The first news that Germans were marching through western Belgium was indeed received with complacency at French Headquarters, because it was calculated that if the Germans had extended their left so far they must have weakened their centre, which would be broken by the French attack. Not until August 23, ten days after the whole of the German armies in the west, some 1,500,000 strong, had been drawn up on the frontier, was it discovered that the Germans were powerful enough both to repulse the French attacks upon their left and centre and to overlap and envelope the Allied left in great strength. Then the elaborately prepared French plan of campaign came tumbling down like a house of cards.

Even more surprising in view of the military omniscience with which the Germans were credited, was their complete ignorance of the movements of the British Army. The British Army was very small in comparison with the conscript hosts of the Continent, and German soldiers were not disposed to rate its military qualifications highly. It therefore is perhaps not astonishing that the German General Staff informed the German Navy that it attached no particular importance to attempts to interfere with the passage of British troops across the Channel. German Headquarters, in fact, regarded the landing of British troops in Belgium as a positive advantage and hoped to take them and the Belgian Army in their stride towards France. Of that state of mind there is definite evidence, but I may mention incidentally that there is no foundation in fact for the story that the Kaiser described the British Army as "contemptible" and instructed his generals to devote all their energies to its destruction. This is one of those war fictions which has become so firmly established, in England at least, that its demise cannot be foreseen.

If the Germans in August, 1914, had no fears of the effect upon their plans of British military intervention on the side of France, every one with knowledge of the thoroughness and care with which their military preparations were made anticipated that they would have had more than an inkling of the form that intervention would take and would have arranged to get early information of the British landing. Now the advanced parties of the British Expeditionary Force landed at Havre on August 9, 1914. By August 17 the whole had disembarked. From August 14 onward they began to move forward by rail to their place of concentration behind the French fortress of Maubeuge, and 100,000 combatant troops were there assembled by August 20. For six days hundreds of trains had been convoying them across the north of France. On August 21 the British Army began to march forward to Mons, which it reached the next afternoon. Yet on August 20 German General Headquarters telegraphed to von Kluck, who was then about to occupy Brussels: "Disembarkation of the English at Boulogne and their employment from the direction of Lille must be reckoned with. The opinion here however is that large disembarkations have not yet taken place." So on August 23 von Kluck advanced on Mons in ignorance that he had in front of him the whole British Expeditionary Force.

These things being so, one cannot but be mildly surprised at the courage and confidence of those who write of the nature of the next war. Surely if experience is any guide the one thing that is reasonably certain is that if another great struggle between great powers takes place it will produce as many surprises as did the last.

Yet we are not without some guidance as to the general nature of the developments which we may expect. There have been in the past many wars which were longer than the Great War. There have been none in which the opposing armies were permanently in contact, in which men were being killed and wounded every day. There have been none in which the numbers engaged have been so huge. These, rather than shells of great size, thrown great distances, poison gas, tanks and aircraft, were the outstanding characteristics of the Great War. In that war, as in former wars, battles were incidents in campaigns, though they were of far longer duration. The feature that was without precedent was that from the first day to the last the guns never ceased firing. This was the consequence of the establishment of a continuous barrier of trenches, which limited maneuver and kept the opposing armies permanently in contact.

To what was the continuous trench barrier due? Obviously to the vast numbers engaged on either side. For the first time in history entire nations were in arms. But the appearance of that phenomenon in the years between 1914 and 1918 was not caused by any drastic change in the machinery for making armies. Conscription, the establishment by law of the right of the state to call every able bodied man to arms, may be dated from 1792, the year of Valmy. In 1870 that method of raising armies was well established and almost universal on the Continent of Europe. Yet at the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War of that year we find that the German states placed in the field on the frontiers of Alsace-Lorraine armies numbering 380,000 men, and that France opposed them with armies of 275,000 men. Each power made the greatest initial effort of which it considered itself to be capable. Forty-four years later, in August, 1914, Germany drew up along the frontiers of France and Belgium 1,500,000 men, and France opposed them with armies numbering 1,000,000. The initial military effort of the two countries had increased fourfold, and it was rapidly developed until armies came to be numbered by millions, not by hundreds of thousands. There had been no corresponding increase in the man-power of the two countries. This remarkable change which, as I have endeavored to show, altered the form and nature of war far more drastically than did any development of weapons or of military methods, was the consequence of other changes that had no direct connection with war.

The prime cause of the expansion in the size of armies, which took place at the beginning of the twentieth century, was the expansion which took place in the means of transportation. Napoleon said truly that his armies moved on their bellies, and, given an adequate supply of men, the size of armies which can be maintained in the field depends first and foremost on the means available for keeping the bellies filled. From the days of Alexander and of Hannibal to those of Napoleon there had been no material changes in the means of transportation; roads had improved in numbers and in quality, but the animal drawn vehicle remained the chief reliance of the commissariat. The development of railways in the first half of the nineteenth century brought about important but not drastic changes. They enabled the rate at which armies could be set in the field to be greatly speeded up, and in 1870 the process of mobilization both in France and Germany was much shorter than it had been at the outset of any previous war. But troops cooped up in trains are without any means of defence, they cannot be brought to a battlefield by train, nor could trainloads of supplies be carried safely by rail into the immediate zone of military operations. They had to be unloaded at depots at a safe distance behind the front. There remained, then, a considerable zone within which men had to march, and their supplies had to be carried as before in animal drawn vehicles. With the invention of quick-firing rifles and guns the amount of ammunition required had increased greatly, so that at first railways made little difference to the amount of animal transport which armies required, and this requirement still placed a strict limit on the number of men who could be put in the field. The columns of animal drawn transport could not be allowed to expand indefinitely, since that would cause such congestion as would make the regular delivery of supplies impossible, while if the roads in the rear were blocked with slow-moving transport the possibility of maneuver would be confined to a straight forward advance. Until the beginning of the twentieth century transportation still imposed a definite limit on the size of armies.

Then came the application of the internal combustion engine to road transport, and with it a further improvement in the number and quality of roads. By the time the motor vehicle was perfected the number of railways had greatly increased, until the chief European countries had a complete network of rails. The motor lorry could carry from three to four times as much as the horse-drawn vehicle occupying a similar space on the road, and could travel six times as fast. It could bring up supplies from convenient depots on the railways situated at a safe distance from the front, deliver them to the troops, and return rapidly, leaving the roads behind the armies clear. Transportation had ceased to be a limiting factor in the size of armies.

There remained one difficulty to overcome before vast armies could be maintained for any length of time in the field. In all wars before the Great War disease had proved to be at least as great a cause of loss as the enemy's bullets and shells, in most of them a greater one. Large bodies of men could not be kept together for any length of time without suffering from some form of epidemic disease. In the South African War, Great Britain lost far more men from enteric fever than she did from the bullets of the Boers. But while scientists of one kind were giving their minds to the solution of the problems of transportation, those of another kind were solving the problem of sanitation, with the result that in the Great War armies of unprecedented size were kept healthy, though the men in the ranks were living under conditions such as human beings had never before been called upon to endure for a like period. Disease instead of being a major became altogether a minor cause of loss, at least in that part of the Great War which was fought in Europe. Thus the last limitation upon the numbers of men who could be maintained in the field disappeared. It was no longer necessary to calculate how many men could be fed and kept healthy at any given time and place; the question became how many men capable of bearing arms were available.

Now the development of railways, motor transport, and roads, and the progress of medical science, had not been brought about with a view to war. A few so-called strategic railways had been built primarily for military purposes in France and Germany, and in those countries especially consideration had been given to military needs in designing railway stations and in placing sidings. But the great increase in railways in the latter half of the nineteenth century had taken place to meet the industrial and social needs of the people. Motor transport was adopted by armies after its utility for industrial purposes had been proved. I doubt whether a single scientist or medical man had thought of the application of his discoveries to war while he was working in his laboratory to discover means of lessening the incidence of disease. We thus come to the conclusion that these changes in the nature of war, which made the Great War so different to any wars which had preceded it, were not due to any purely military inventions or methods, but to changes which had taken place in the ordinary life and methods of peoples, changes and developments designed for the purposes of peace. This, then, I regard as the most important military lesson of the Great War, and as the best guide to speculation on the nature of future wars.

It is the usual experience that after any important war public opinion should be impressed by the effect of such new weapons as have been used, and that speculation should be rife as to what new terrors those weapons may have in store for us. This has been more than ever the case in the years that have followed the Great War, for the average man and woman has become acutely conscious of the fact that aircraft promise to extend almost indefinitely the danger zone in war. A far more general interest is therefore now taken in speculation as to the nature of future war, and there is also a far more general and sincere desire to do everything that is possible to avoid war. But as I have pointed out, attempts to forecast the nature and effect of weapons to be used in future wars have been very rarely successful. In these days the life of any particular weapon is comparatively short. The limits of the application of science to the means of destruction has not yet been reached. For every existing weapon some antidote is usually found sooner or later, and the discovery of the antidote tends in time to the discovery of some fresh weapon to which the antidote is not an effective reply. For these reasons I do not attach more than a secondary importance to speculations as to the effect of tanks, poison gas, aeroplanes, or other instruments of war which first made their appearance in the years 1914-1918. It is of greater importance to consider what developments are in progress in the lives of peoples which are likely to effect the nature of war.

Now the outstanding feature of our age is that every day all of us are coming to rely more and more upon machinery. Our industries and indeed our personal comfort are more and more dependent upon the factory and less and less upon the output of human labor unaided by the machine. In the military world a like process is at work. It has for a long time been applied to navies, and the modern battleship is now a mass of intricate machinery enclosed in steel cases. As a result of the experiences of the Great War armies are following the example of fleets. In that war the supply of munitions, and therefore the importance of the manufacture and the supply of material convertible into munitions, attained an importance beyond comparison greater than in any former wars. Plans for battle were dependent to a predominant degree upon the number of guns and shells available. This was of course largely due to the fact that the existence of the trench barrier allowed ample time for preparation. But one result of the experience gained is that military thought everywhere has been impressed by the fact that the unprotected rifleman, however numerous he may be, cannot produce a volume of fire at all comparable with that produced by the right type of military machine. Armies therefore are going through a process of mechanization; and whether the particular weapons with which they are now armed survive the test of war or not, it seems certain that changes will take the form of reliance upon other and better machines rather than upon the development of man power. Man power will be wanted elsewhere as well as at the front.

Napoleon gave as his receipt for victory the big battalions; the receipt for future victories is the big factories. If machines of the right kind and in the necessary numbers are to be produced quickly, and if those machines are to be provided with the immense volume of missiles which they are capable of discharging, then enormous demands will be made upon manufacture, demands even greater than those made in the Great War, when the countries of the chief belligerents became arsenals. It follows, then, that in any future war those countries which have a highly developed industrial system and control over the raw materials convertible into military machines and munitions will be at a great advantage; and further, that of those countries the one which has given at least as much thought to the mobilization of its industries as it has to the mobilization of its armies will be at the greatest advantage.

It follows, moreover, that the importance of effective organization for the higher direction of war is greatly increased. The difficulty of insuring coöperation between the political and the military direction of war became very apparent in the Great War. In most of the European countries the soldiers and the statesmen were at one time or another at loggerheads. It is the business of professional soldiers, sailors and airmen, to think about war, but with rare exceptions they are ignorant of statecraft. Those whose business it is to think of statecraft, particularly in countries with a democratic system of government, are usually far too occupied with the daily demands of the political situation to give regular and consistent thought in time of peace to an eventuality which may never arise. The causes of friction in time of war, necessarily a time of stress, exist in most countries, and in most countries the trend of political development tends to increase them. But unless and until war as a means of settling international disputes is abolished, the causes of friction must be removed if war is to be conducted successfully and with the minimum of loss.

The developments which I have indicated as probable make the role of statecraft in war of greater importance than ever. Organization for war now means not only the organization of armies and navies, but the organization of the whole of the resources of the state. When war comes, the correct allocation of those resources is a matter of supreme importance. The proper direction of industry will be as vital as good generalship; the correct distribution of man power between the demands of armies and navies and the demands of industry will call for the nicest consideration. The Great War showed us over and over again how supremely difficult it was for the statesman to guide wisely, without ill-considered interference in the technical spheres of the soldier and sailor. So long as the possibility of war remains, statesmen must learn that their part in its conduct will in future be even more difficult and of far greater importance than it has been in the past. The correct coordination of statecraft and strategy is more than ever the key to the successful conduct of war. These are the main military lessons of the Great War.

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  • MAJOR GENERAL SIR FREDERICK MAURICE, Director of Military Operations of the British General Staff, 1915-18; author of a number of military studies
  • More By Frederick Maurice