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Anticipations

VI

War

In shaping anticipations of the future of war there arises a certain difficulty about the point of departure. One may either begin upon such broad issues as the preceding forecasts have opened, and having determined now something of the nature of the coming State and the force of its warlike inclination, proceed to speculate how this vast ill-organized fourfold organism will fight; or one may set all that matter aside for a space, and having regard chiefly to the continually more potent appliances physical science offers the soldier, we may try to develop a general impression of theoretically thorough war, go from that to the nature of the State most likely to be superlatively efficient in such warfare, and so arrive at the conditions of survival under which these present governments of confusion will struggle one against the other. The latter course will be taken here. We will deal first of all with war conducted for its own sake, with a model army, as efficient as an imaginative training can make it, and with a model organization for warfare of the State behind it, and then the experience of the confused modern social organism as it is impelled, in an uncongenial metamorphosis, towards this imperative and finally unavoidable efficient state, will come most easily within the scope of one's imagination.

The great change that is working itself out in warfare is the same change that is working itself out in the substance of the social fabric. The essential change in the social fabric, as we have analyzed it, is the progressive supersession of the old broad labour base by elaborately organized mechanism, and the obsolescence of the once valid and necessary distinction of gentle and simple. In warfare, as I have already indicated, this takes the form of the progressive supersession of the horse and the private soldier—which were the living and sole engines of the old time—by machines, and the obliteration of the old distinction between leaders, who pranced in a conspicuously dangerous and encouraging way into the picturesque incidents of battle, and the led, who cheered and charged and filled the ditches and were slaughtered in a wholesale dramatic manner. The old war was a matter of long dreary marches, great hardships of campaigning, but also of heroic conclusive moments. Long periods of campings—almost always with an outbreak of pestilence—of marchings and retreats, much crude business of feeding and forage, culminated at last, with an effect of infinite relief, in an hour or so of "battle." The battle was always a very intimate tumultuous affair, the men were flung at one another in vast excited masses, in living fighting machines as it were, spears or bayonets flashed, one side or the other ceased to prolong the climax, and the thing was over. The beaten force crumpled as a whole, and the victors as a whole pressed upon it. Cavalry with slashing sabres marked the crowning point of victory. In the later stages of the old warfare musketry volleys were added to the physical impact of the contending regiments, and at last cannon, as a quite accessory method of breaking these masses of men. So you "gave battle" to and defeated your enemy's forces wherever encountered, and when you reached your objective in his capital the war was done.... The new war will probably have none of these features of the old system of fighting.

The revolution that is in progress from the old war to a new war, different in its entire nature from the old, is marked primarily by the steady progress in range and efficiency of the rifle and of the field-gun—and more particularly of the rifle. The rifle develops persistently from a clumsy implement, that any clown may learn to use in half a day, towards a very intricate mechanism, easily put out of order and easily misused, but of the most extraordinary possibilities in the hands of men of courage, character, and high intelligence. Its precision at long range has made the business of its care, loading and aim subsidiary to the far more intricate matter of its use in relation to the contour of the ground within its reach. Even its elaboration as an instrument is probably still incomplete. One can conceive it provided in the future with cross-thread telescopic sights, the focussing of which, corrected by some ingenious use of hygroscopic material, might even find the range, and so enable it to be used with assurance up to a mile or more. It will probably also take on some of the characters of the machine-gun. It will be used either for single shots or to quiver and send a spray of almost simultaneous bullets out of a magazine evenly and certainly, over any small area the rifleman thinks advisable. It will probably be portable by one man, but there is no reason really, except the bayonet tradition, the demands of which may be met in other ways, why it should be the instrument of one sole man. It will, just as probably, be slung with its ammunition and equipment upon bicycle wheels, and be the common care of two or more associated soldiers. Equipped with such a weapon, a single couple of marksmen even, by reason of smokeless powder and carefully chosen cover, might make themselves practically invisible, and capable of surprising, stopping, and destroying a visible enemy in quite considerable numbers who blundered within a mile of them. And a series of such groups of marksmen so arranged as to cover the arrival of reliefs, provisions, and fresh ammunition from the rear, might hold out against any visible attack for an indefinite period, unless the ground they occupied was searched very ably and subtly by some sort of gun having a range in excess of their rifle fire. If the ground they occupied were to be properly tunnelled and trenched, even that might not avail, and there would be nothing for it but to attack them by an advance under cover either of the night or of darkness caused by smoke-shells, or by the burning of cover about their position. Even then they might be deadly with magazine fire at close quarters. Save for their liability to such attacks, a few hundreds of such men could hold positions of a quite vast extent, and a few thousand might hold a frontier. Assuredly a mere handful of such men could stop the most multitudinous attack or cover the most disorderly retreat in the world, and even when some ingenious, daring, and lucky night assault had at last ejected them from a position, dawn would simply restore to them the prospect of reconstituting in new positions their enormous advantage of defence.

The only really effective and final defeat such an attenuated force of marksmen could sustain, would be from the slow and circumspect advance upon it of a similar force of superior marksmen, creeping forward under cover of night or of smoke-shells and fire, digging pits during the snatches of cessation obtained in this way, and so coming nearer and nearer and getting a completer and completer mastery of the defender's ground until the approach of the defender's reliefs, food, and fresh ammunition ceased to be possible. Thereupon there would be nothing for it but either surrender or a bolt in the night to positions in the rear, a bolt that might be hotly followed if it were deferred too late.

Probably between contiguous nations that have mastered the art of war, instead of the pouring clouds of cavalry of the old dispensation,[37] this will be the opening phase of the struggle, a vast duel all along the frontier between groups of skilled marksmen, continually being relieved and refreshed from the rear. For a time quite possibly there will be no definite army here or there, there will be no controllable battle, there will be no Great General in the field at all. But somewhere far in the rear the central organizer will sit at the telephonic centre of his vast front, and he will strengthen here and feed there and watch, watch perpetually the pressure, the incessant remorseless pressure that is seeking to wear down his countervailing thrust. Behind the thin firing line that is actually engaged, the country for many miles will be rapidly cleared and devoted to the business of war, big machines will be at work making second, third, and fourth lines of trenches that may be needed if presently the firing line is forced back, spreading out transverse paths for the swift lateral movement of the cyclists who will be in perpetual alertness to relieve sudden local pressures, and all along those great motor roads our first "Anticipations" sketched, there will be a vast and rapid shifting to and fro of big and very long range guns. These guns will probably be fought with the help of balloons. The latter will hang above the firing line all along the front, incessantly ascending and withdrawn; they will be continually determining the distribution of the antagonist's forces, directing the fire of continually shifting great guns upon the apparatus and supports in the rear of his fighting line, forecasting his night plans and seeking some tactical or strategic weakness in that sinewy line of battle.

It will be evident that such warfare as this inevitable precision of gun and rifle forces upon humanity, will become less and less dramatic as a whole, more and more as a whole a monstrous thrust and pressure of people against people. No dramatic little general spouting his troops into the proper hysterics for charging, no prancing merely brave officers, no reckless gallantry or invincible stubbornness of men will suffice. For the commander-in-chief on a picturesque horse sentimentally watching his "boys" march past to death or glory in battalions, there will have to be a loyal staff of men, working simply, earnestly, and subtly to keep the front tight, and at the front, every little isolated company of men will have to be a council of war, a little conspiracy under the able man its captain, as keen and individual as a football team, conspiring against the scarcely seen company of the foe over yonder. The battalion commander will be replaced in effect by the organizer of the balloons and guns by which his few hundreds of splendid individuals will be guided and reinforced. In the place of hundreds of thousands of more or less drunken and untrained young men marching into battle—muddle-headed, sentimental, dangerous and futile hobbledehoys—there will be thousands of sober men braced up to their highest possibilities, intensely doing their best; in the place of charging battalions, shattering impacts of squadrons and wide harvest-fields of death, there will be hundreds of little rifle battles fought up to the hilt, gallant dashes here, night surprises there, the sudden sinister faint gleam of nocturnal bayonets, brilliant guesses that will drop catastrophic shell and death over hills and forests suddenly into carelessly exposed masses of men. For eight miles on either side of the firing lines—whose fire will probably never altogether die away while the war lasts—men will live and eat and sleep under the imminence of unanticipated death.... Such will be the opening phase of the war that is speedily to come.

And behind the thin firing line on either side a vast multitude of people will be at work; indeed, the whole mass of the efficients in the State will have to be at work, and most of them will be simply at the same work or similar work to that done in peace time—only now as combatants upon the lines of communication. The organized staffs of the big road managements, now become a part of the military scheme, will be deporting women and children and feeble people and bringing up supplies and supports; the doctors will be dropping from their civil duties into pre-appointed official places, directing the feeding and treatment of the shifting masses of people and guarding the valuable manhood of the fighting apparatus most sedulously from disease;[38] the engineers will be entrenching and bringing up a vast variety of complicated and ingenious apparatus designed to surprise and inconvenience the enemy in novel ways; the dealers in food and clothing, the manufacturers of all sorts of necessary stuff, will be converted by the mere declaration of war into public servants; a practical realization of socialistic conceptions will quite inevitably be forced upon the fighting State. The State that has not incorporated with its fighting organization all its able-bodied manhood and all its material substance, its roads, vehicles, engines, foundries, and all its resources of food and clothing; the State which at the outbreak of war has to bargain with railway and shipping companies, replace experienced station-masters by inexperienced officers, and haggle against alien interests for every sort of supply, will be at an overwhelming disadvantage against a State which has emerged from the social confusion of the present time, got rid of every vestige of our present distinction between official and governed, and organized every element in its being.

I imagine that in this ideal war as compared with the war of to-day, there will be a very considerable restriction of the rights of the non-combatant. A large part of existing International Law involves a curious implication, a distinction between the belligerent government and its accredited agents in warfare and the general body of its subjects. There is a disposition to treat the belligerent government, in spite of the democratic status of many States, as not fully representing its people, to establish a sort of world-citizenship in the common mass outside the official and military class. Protection of the non-combatant and his property comes at last—in theory at least—within a measurable distance of notice boards: "Combatants are requested to keep off the grass." This disposition I ascribe to a recognition of that obsolescence and inadequacy of the formal organization of States, which has already been discussed in this book. It was a disposition that was strongest perhaps in the earliest decades of the nineteenth century, and stronger now than, in the steady and irresistible course of strenuous and universal military preparation, it is likely to be in the future. In our imaginary twentieth century State, organized primarily for war, this tendency to differentiate a non-combatant mass in the fighting State will certainly not be respected, the State will be organized as a whole to fight as a whole, it will have triumphantly asserted the universal duty of its citizens. The military force will be a much ampler organization than the "army" of to-day, it will be not simply the fists but the body and brain of the land. The whole apparatus, the whole staff engaged in internal communication, for example, may conceivably not be State property and a State service, but if it is not it will assuredly be as a whole organized as a volunteer force, that may instantly become a part of the machinery of defence or aggression at the outbreak of war.[39] The men may very conceivably not have a uniform, for military uniforms are simply one aspect of this curious and transitory phase of restriction, but they will have their orders and their universal plan. As the bells ring and the recording telephones click into every house the news that war has come, there will be no running to and fro upon the public ways, no bawling upon the moving platforms of the central urban nuclei, no crowds of silly useless able-bodied people gaping at inflammatory transparencies outside the offices of sensational papers because the egregious idiots in control of affairs have found them no better employment. Every man will be soberly and intelligently setting about the particular thing he has to do—even the rich shareholding sort of person, the hereditary mortgager of society, will be given something to do, and if he has learnt nothing else he will serve to tie up parcels of ammunition or pack army sausage. Very probably the best of such people and of the speculative class will have qualified as cyclist marksmen for the front, some of them may even have devoted the leisure of peace to military studies and may be prepared with novel weapons. Recruiting among the working classes—or, more properly speaking, among the People of the Abyss—will have dwindled to the vanishing point; people who are no good for peace purposes are not likely to be any good in such a grave and complicated business as modern war. The spontaneous traffic of the roads in peace, will fall now into two streams, one of women and children coming quietly and comfortably out of danger, the other of men and material going up to the front. There will be no panics, no hardships, because everything will have been amply pre-arranged—we are dealing with an ideal State. Quietly and tremendously that State will have gripped its adversary and tightened its muscles—that is all.

Now the strategy of this new sort of war in its opening phase will consist mainly in very rapid movements of guns and men behind that thin screen of marksmen, in order to deal suddenly and unexpectedly some forcible blow, to snatch at some position into which guns and men may be thrust to outflank and turn the advantage of the ground against some portion of the enemy's line. The game will be largely to crowd and crumple that line, to stretch it over an arc to the breaking point, to secure a position from which to shell and destroy its supports and provisions, and to capture or destroy its guns and apparatus, and so tear it away from some town or arsenal it has covered. And a factor of primary importance in this warfare, because of the importance of seeing the board, a factor which will be enormously stimulated to develop in the future, will be the aerial factor. Already we have seen the captive balloon as an incidental accessory of considerable importance even in the wild country warfare of South Africa. In the warfare that will go on in the highly-organized European States of the opening century, the special military balloon used in conjunction with guns, conceivably of small calibre but of enormous length and range, will play a part of quite primary importance. These guns will be carried on vast mechanical carriages, possibly with wheels of such a size as will enable them to traverse almost all sorts of ground.[40] The aeronauts, provided with large scale maps of the hostile country, will mark down to the gunners below the precise point upon which to direct their fire, and over hill and dale the shell will fly—ten miles it may be—to its billet, camp, massing night attack, or advancing gun.

Great multitudes of balloons will be the Argus eyes of the entire military organism, stalked eyes with a telephonic nerve in each stalk, and at night they will sweep the country with search-lights and come soaring before the wind with hanging flares. Certainly they will be steerable. Moreover, when the wind admits, there will be freely-moving steerable balloons wagging little flags to their friends below. And so far as the resources of the men on the ground go, the balloons will be almost invulnerable. The mere perforation of balloons with shot does them little harm, and the possibility of hitting a balloon that is drifting about at a practically unascertainable distance and height so precisely as to blow it to pieces with a timed shell, and to do this in the little time before it is able to give simple and precise instructions as to your range and position to the unseen gunners it directs, is certainly one of the most difficult and trying undertakings for an artilleryman that one can well imagine. I am inclined to think that the many considerations against a successful attack on balloons from the ground, will enormously stimulate enterprise and invention in the direction of dirigible aerial devices that can fight. Few people, I fancy, who know the work of Langley, Lilienthal, Pilcher, Maxim, and Chanute, but will be inclined to believe that long before the year a.d. 2000, and very probably before 1950, a successful aeroplane will have soared and come home safe and sound. Directly that is accomplished the new invention will be most assuredly applied to war.

The nature of the things that will ultimately fight in the sky is a matter for curious speculation. We begin with the captive balloon. Against that the navigable balloon will presently operate. I am inclined to think the practicable navigable balloon will be first attained by the use of a device already employed by Nature in the swimming-bladder of fishes. This is a closed gas-bag that can be contracted or expanded. If a gas-bag of thin, strong, practically impervious substance could be enclosed in a net of closely interlaced fibres (interlaced, for example, on the pattern of the muscles of the bladder in mammals), the ends of these fibres might be wound and unwound, and the effect of contractility attained. A row of such contractile balloons, hung over a long car which was horizontally expanded into wings, would not only allow that car to rise and fall at will, but if the balloon at one end were contracted and that at the other end expanded, and the intermediate ones allowed to assume intermediate conditions, the former end would drop, the expanded wings would be brought into a slanting condition over a smaller area of supporting air, and the whole apparatus would tend to glide downwards in that direction. The projection of a small vertical plane upon either side would make the gliding mass rotate in a descending spiral, and so we have all the elements of a controllable flight. Such an affair would be difficult to overset. It would be able to beat up even in a fair wind, and then it would be able to contract its bladders and fall down a long slant in any direction. From some such crude beginning a form like a soaring, elongated, flat-brimmed hat might grow, and the possibilities of adding an engine-driven screw are obvious enough.

It is difficult to see how such a contrivance could carry guns of any calibre unless they fired from the rear in the line of flight. The problem of recoil becomes a very difficult one in aerial tactics. It would probably have at most a small machine-gun or so, which might fire an explosive shell at the balloons of the enemy, or kill their aeronauts with distributed bullets. The thing would be a sort of air-shark, and one may even venture to picture something of the struggle the deadlocked marksmen of 1950, lying warily in their rifle-pits, will see.

One conceives them at first, each little hole with its watchful, well-equipped couple of assassins, turning up their eyes in expectation. The wind is with our enemy, and his captive balloons have been disagreeably overhead all through the hot morning. His big guns have suddenly become nervously active. Then, a little murmur along the pits and trenches, and from somewhere over behind us, this air-shark drives up the sky. The enemy's balloons splutter a little, retract, and go rushing down, and we send a spray of bullets as they drop. Then against our aerostat, and with the wind driving them clean overhead of us, come the antagonistic flying-machines. I incline to imagine there will be a steel prow with a cutting edge at either end of the sort of aerostat I foresee, and conceivably this aerial ram will be the most important weapon of the affair. When operating against balloons, such a fighting-machine will rush up the air as swiftly as possible, and then, with a rapid contraction of its bladders, fling itself like a knife at the sinking war-balloon of the foe. Down, down, down, through a vast alert tension of flight, down it will swoop, and, if its stoop is successful, slash explosively at last through a suffocating moment. Rifles will crack, ropes tear and snap; there will be a rending and shouting, a great thud of liberated gas, and perhaps a flare. Quite certainly those flying machines will carry folded parachutes, and the last phase of many a struggle will be the desperate leap of the aeronauts with these in hand, to snatch one last chance of life out of a mass of crumpling, fallen wreckage.

But in such a fight between flying-machine and flying-machine as we are trying to picture, it will be a fight of hawks, complicated by bullets and little shells. They will rush up and up to get the pitch of one another, until the aeronauts sob and sicken in the rarefied air, and the blood comes to eyes and nails. The marksmen below will strain at last, eyes under hands, to see the circling battle that dwindles in the zenith. Then, perhaps, a wild adventurous dropping of one close beneath the other, an attempt to stoop, the sudden splutter of guns, a tilting up or down, a disengagement. What will have happened? One combatant, perhaps, will heel lamely earthward, dropping, dropping, with half its bladders burst or shot away, the other circles down in pursuit.... "What are they doing?" Our marksmen will snatch at their field-glasses, tremulously anxious, "Is that a white flag or no?... If they drop now we have 'em!"

But the duel will be the rarer thing. In any affair of ramming there is an enormous advantage for the side that can contrive, anywhere in the field of action, to set two vessels at one. The mere ascent of one flying-ram from one side will assuredly slip the leashes of two on the other, until the manœuvring squadrons may be as thick as starlings in October. They will wheel and mount, they will spread and close, there will be elaborate manœuvres for the advantage of the wind, there will be sudden drops to the shelter of entrenched guns. The actual impact of battle will be an affair of moments. They will be awful moments, but not more terrible, not more exacting of manhood than the moments that will come to men when there is—and it has not as yet happened on this earth—equal fighting between properly manned and equipped ironclads at sea. (And the well-bred young gentlemen of means who are privileged to officer the British Army nowadays will be no more good at this sort of thing than they are at controversial theology or electrical engineering or anything else that demands a well-exercised brain.)...

Once the command of the air is obtained by one of the contending armies, the war must become a conflict between a seeing host and one that is blind. The victor in that aerial struggle will tower with pitilessly watchful eyes over his adversary, will concentrate his guns and all his strength unobserved, will mark all his adversary's roads and communications, and sweep them with sudden incredible disasters of shot and shell. The moral effect of this predominance will be enormous. All over the losing country, not simply at his frontier but everywhere, the victor will soar. Everybody everywhere will be perpetually and constantly looking up, with a sense of loss and insecurity, with a vague stress of painful anticipations. By day the victor's aeroplanes will sweep down upon the apparatus of all sorts in the adversary's rear, and will drop explosives and incendiary matters upon them,[41] so that no apparatus or camp or shelter will any longer be safe. At night his high floating search-lights will go to and fro and discover and check every desperate attempt to relieve or feed the exhausted marksmen of the fighting line. The phase of tension will pass, that weakening opposition will give, and the war from a state of mutual pressure and petty combat will develop into the collapse of the defensive lines. A general advance will occur under the aerial van, ironclad road fighting-machines may perhaps play a considerable part in this, and the enemy's line of marksmen will be driven back or starved into surrender, or broken up and hunted down. As the superiority of the attack becomes week by week more and more evident, its assaults will become more dashing and far-reaching. Under the moonlight and the watching balloons there will be swift noiseless rushes of cycles, precipitate dismounts, and the never-to-be-quite-abandoned bayonet will play its part. And now men on the losing side will thank God for the reprieve of a pitiless wind, for lightning, thunder, and rain, for any elemental disorder that will for a moment lift the descending scale! Then, under banks of fog and cloud, the victorious advance will pause and grow peeringly watchful and nervous, and mud-stained desperate men will go splashing forward into an elemental blackness, rain or snow like a benediction on their faces, blessing the primordial savagery of nature that can still set aside the wisest devices of men, and give the unthrifty one last desperate chance to get their own again or die.


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