Cavalry, again. Specifically, what the Encyclopedia Britannica's designated expert thought it was going to be doing in the next war, as of 1909. Interestingly, it's not (operational level) reconnaissance. Today I'm going to pursue the point, and lay some groundwork for talking about Jutland next week.
A professor emeritus at Toronto reported conceived an interesting, if self-indulgent project when I was a graduate student there. He assessed the Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, once considered an epitome of knowledge and latterly, if I may put it politely, an artefact of its times. His conclusion was that the latter reputation was somewhat overstated. The past was not a safety school.
As an owner of a copy of the Eleventh Edition, I basically agree, but then there's Frederic Natusch Maude, editor of an awful translation of Clausewitz, as well as tracts more fully explicating his social Darwinist creed, and, of course, the Eleventh Edition's article on "Cavalry." (Lifted from here, corrected, without too much guilt after I noted that the author didn't edit out Maude's explanation of why Catholic cavalry is inherently inferior to Protestant)*:
Imagine an army of 300,000 men advancing by five parallel roads on a front of 50 m., each column (60,000 men, 2 army corps) being covered by a strong advance guard, coming in contact with a similarly constituted army moving in an opposite direction. A series of engagements will ensue, in each of which the object of the local commander will be to paralyse his opponent's will-power by a most vigorous attack, so that his superior officer following him on the same road will be free to act as he chooses. The front of the two armies will now be defined by a line of combats localized- each about a comparatively small area, and between them will be wide gaps which it will be the chief business of the directing minds on either side to close by other troops as soon as possible. Generally the call will be made upon the artillery for this purpose, since they can cover the required distances far more rapidly than infantry. Now, as artillery is powerless when limbered up and always very vulnerable on the flanks of the long lines, a strong cavalry escort will have to be assigned to them which, trotting forward to screen the march will either come in contact with the enemy's cavalry advancing with a similar object, or themselves find an opportunity to catch the enemy's guns at a disadvantage. These are opportunities for the cavalry, and if necessary it must sacrifice itself to turn them to the best account. The whole course of the battle depends on success or failure in the early formation of great lines of guns, for ultimately the victor in the artillery duel finds himself in command of the necessary balance of guns which are needed to prepare the way for his final decisive infantry attack. If this latter succeeds, then any mounted men who can gallop and shoot will suffice for pursuit. If it fails, no cavalry, however gallant, has any hope of definitely restoring the combat, for against victorious infantry, cavalry, now as in the past, can but gain a little time. This time may indeed be worth the price at which it can be bought, but it will always be more economical to concentrate all efforts to prevent the emergency arising. After the Franco-German War 'much was written about the possibility of vast cavalry encounters to be fought far in advance of the main armies, for the purpose of obtaining information, and ideas were freely mooted of wide-flung raids traversing the enemy's communications, breaking up his depots, reserve formations, &c. But riper consideration has relegated these suggestions to the background, for it is now evident that such expeditions involve the dissemination of force, not its concentration. Austria and France for example would scarcely throw their numerically inferior cavalry against the Germans, and nothing would suit them better than that the latter should hurl their squadrons against the frontier guards, advanced posts, and, generally, against unbeaten infantry; nor indeed would the Germans stultify their whole strategic teaching by weakening themselves for the decisive struggle. It follows therefore that cavalry reconnaissance duties will be strictly local and tactical, and that arrangements will be made for procuring strategical information by wireless telegraphy, balloons, motor cars, bicycles, &c.,
So you thought that cavalry was for reconnaissance? That's silly. That technology stuff will rise to its steampunk occasion. Or, at least, it had better rise. The cavalry is needed for its real work: charging, if necessary, "great lines of artillery."
This is, I think that we can agree, bugnuts.
|Photograph by Dan Alex, hosted at www.militaryfactory.com|
Again, this is the M.1897, the French field gun, adopted by the United States Army, thanks to which rootwebs, of all places, hosts the service manual. Also, Craig Swain's discussion.
This is transformational technology. If I could just communicate the importance I sense in the incredible range of technological developments from the 1870-1895 generation that you are seeing here in field operational condition, you'd probably mistake me for Ray Kurzweil's grandpa. You've got your nitrated cellulose, ancestor of all modern plastics, albeit still a little more flammable than might prefer; nitroglycerine, the first true explosive, by the technical definition of having the brisance needed to shatter rock and thus make the Suez and Panama Canals possible; the first forged-steel made in industrial processes on Siemens hearths; a little revolution in precision engineering (in the recoil system) that will lead in short order to the machine age. The result? A fully recoil-compensated gun that fires a 16lb round charged with 290 shrapnel balls (actual shrapnell, not shell fragments) out to 7500 yards. A good crew can get off two rounds a second. But I'm not going to argue that the "pre-Singularity" (work with me here, I'm playing with a trope) happened because of the incredible culmination of multiple strands of technological development that is the Soixante-Quinze. I'm arguing that it was the reaction to it that made some vital bit of modernity real.
The sheer magnitude of technological change inherent in this weapon is, however, Colonel Maude's excuse. He might be a bit of a second-rater (search the name if you want to find out why he's "already accepted"), but if he'd really assimilated what this gun could do, he would surely have realised that he'd just come up with a tactical solution to the problem of there being too many horses in the world.
Why? I'm going to focus on two other aspects of the Modele 1897 that rise to my attention: the aiming telescope, and wooden wheels. I'm not going to be able to put them together as smoothly as I'd like below, but they both represent, in different ways, a revolution in our relationship with the landscape, our understanding of what information might be. It's all at once, a great leap into the dark. We'll do it in the context of the state's full-throated preparation for a great power war a little more than a decade away, where we will test our understanding of the synthesis by throwing a few million lives away. And then we'll stand back and wonder what we've done, and how we've changed the world, when it's already changed and we don't even quite know how.