Academic journal article History Review

Transport, Communications and the Changing Nature of Land Warfare, 1792-1945: Graham Goodland Assesses the Impact of Developments in Non-Military Technology on the Conduct of War in the Modern Era

Academic journal article History Review

Transport, Communications and the Changing Nature of Land Warfare, 1792-1945: Graham Goodland Assesses the Impact of Developments in Non-Military Technology on the Conduct of War in the Modern Era

Article excerpt

In the western world, the period between the French Revolutionary conflicts and the two world wars witnessed a technological revolution on an unprecedented scale. The onset of industrialisation transformed the battlefield by making available new and more powerful weaponry, capable of being manufactured in increasing quantities. The focus of this article, however, is the application to warfare of technical innovations that were originally conceived for civilian use. The development of steam locomotive power in the early nineteenth century, and the internal combustion engine towards the end of the century, created wholly new possibilities for the movement of troops and supplies. On the eve of the First World War, a further dimension was opened up as heavier than air flight became a reality. These advances were of huge importance for armies which, for hundreds of years, had relied almost entirely on the horse for transport. In the field of communications, the period saw a progression from signalling by flags, lights and semaphore, through the introduction of the electric telegraph in the 1840s, to the telephone and radio by the early twentieth century.

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The ability of states to project force was to be massively enhanced through harnessing this new technology for military purposes. On the other hand, material progress brought its own distinctive challenges. It imposed demands on states in terms of industrial production, helping to turn war into a contest between rival economies. It also entailed new pressures on military leaders, who now had to integrate technical developments with other aspects of warfare. Command became an increasingly complex business. The setting of goals and the planning and resourcing of campaigns were more complicated. In addition, external factors such as human error, morale, the nature of the terrain, even weather conditions--those forces that the nineteenth century writer Clausewitz termed 'friction'--were a constant presence. In considering the impact of technological advances on warfare, it is important to appreciate their limitations as well as their positive potential.

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From Horsepower to Steampower

Transport was a major constraint on the planning of operations in the pre-industrial age. The bulk of an eighteenth century army travelled on foot and progress was further slowed by the need to carry quantities of supplies, necessitating the formation of a long and burdensome horse-drawn wagon train. The poor condition of most European roads encouraged some commanders to use waterways as an alternative, hut these were predictable routes which an enemy could easily protect with strategically placed fortresses. These practical considerations tended to limit the scope of warfare, making it more difficult to seek the destruction of an enemy through decisive engagement.

At the turn of the century Napoleon Bonaparte sought to overcome these problems by a new approach to strategy. By dividing his forces for marching, and then concentrating them for battle, he was able to reduce the length of his supply columns. French troops took advantage of the increased food production that was a consequence of the 18th-century agricultural revolution, living by requisitioning food on the move. By avoiding prolonged sieges and seeking direct confrontation with enemy forces as rapidly as possible, Napoleon evolved a more mobile form of warfare. This worked extremely well when, in the space of seven weeks in 1805, the French Grande Armee marched from the Channel coast to cross the Rhine and compel the surrender of the Austrian army at Ulm in southern Germany. The victorious French then marched a further 500 miles east, in only five weeks, to defeat a combined Austro-Russian army at Austerlitz. Napoleon failed, however, to achieve the swift success on which his strategy depended when he invaded Russia in 1812. His logistic arrangements proved inadequate over the enormous distances of the Russian homeland. …

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