Thursday, May 2, 2013

Early Industrial Warfare

Industrial Revolution and Global War

Steel Mill

Technological advances brought about by the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century enabled the civilized world’s prosecution of two world wars during the 20th century that, together, brought an end to Europe’s political and economic global dominance.  The destructive power unleashed by the mechanization of warfare, together with the entire energies and resources of a society focused on the pursuit of total victory over opposing societies, would leave Western Europe both exhausted and bankrupt.  The 19th century’s miracle of unprecedented growth, optimism and wealth set the stage for forces of barbarism that would reduce great cities to rubble and turn millions of Europeans into refuges in search of a country.  During these years of war mankind’s accomplishments were mostly limited to expending great effort and baring enormous sacrifice in order to destroy decades of painstakingly assembled human achievement.

Machine Gun

Foremost among the industrial factors of the 19th century was the development of the steam engine.  Its power energized great manufacturing facilities where mass production techniques were developed, freeing society from the expense of needing skilled craftsmen for the assembly of widely sought utensils.  From these factories relatively cheap firearms and rapid fire breech loading artillery were produced in great number.  The truly mechanized infantry weapon, the machine gun, was introduced into European armies by the turn of the 20th century.  The chemical discoveries of Alfred Nobel brought enormous advances in propellants and magnified the power of explosive devices.  Machine guns could now level an infantry assault, leaving men dead and wounded, gathered in large numbers on the field in front of them.  Artillery was now able to rain ordinance down on people and both military and civilian targets from a safe distance beyond the horizon. 

Steam Locomotive

Steam generated power made the rapid distribution of people and supplies possible over a steadily expanding network of railways.  Transport by train freed troops from long, exhausting marches and delivered them and their provisions onto the battlefield in short order.  Armies were freed from reliance on previously stocked provisions and from having to round up food from the farms of invaded territories.  Improved railroad logistics enabled a nation’s army to expect their country’s economic resources to keep them well fed, battle ready and resupplied with a steady stream of replacement troops.  Warfare was no longer limited to an army’s tactical maneuvers and strategic goals.  It was an industrial competition and the civilian home front was a legitimate military target in the 20th century philosophy of total war.

Mechanized Warfare

The hundred years leading up to the outbreak of the First World War saw an unprecedented improvement in the social welfare of industrialized nations.  The populations of European countries doubled, and even tripled, during this century of economic progress.  Great commercial wealth was able to finance the billeting of armies of historic size.  The increased use of conscription by governments to match the growing manpower of opposing armies made possible the devastation of an entire generation of Europeans drawn into the conflict that began in 1914.  It was supposed to be a quick war but the shocking toll in human life led to a fervid determination in popular will that nothing less than an absolute, unconditional victory over one’s enemy could avenge the nation’s sacrifice and grief.  An era of modern, industrial warfare had come of age.

Related Topics:

Strategic Bombing

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Between Wars in America

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