So I'm staking out a position here where the mass conscript armies of 1914 aren't going to be traced back to the world-historical moment of the French Revolution, but rather to a series of events beginning with the Battle of Kӧniggratz. The reason for that is that they don't. The Prussians admittedly kept conscription through the first half of the Nineteenth Century, but if we look at the facts, as opposed to the "Prussians are awesome" stuff, we're talking about a traditional garrison army that took fewer than half of those eligible and furloughed many of those, and we're pretty much tea-leaving to find a difference between the Prussian military institutions of 1780 and 1830. (Even Christopher Clark, sad to say.)
Besides, the whole point of the "Prussians are awesome" thing is the time of blood and iron. Something significant happened between 1866 and 1872, and it wasn't just the battlefield deaths of many good young men, or the unification of Germany or the Third Republic or the French Indemnity. In 1866, four nations of central Europe put almost one-and-a-half million young men in the field and kept them there for seven weeks. Fewer than 70,000 in all died. The rest, they lived. And surely that would be significant in its own right even were these days not the birth of the mass conscript armies that would soon be taking all of the male youth of Europe in precisely one of the most dynamic eras of human economic history.
Why is all of this obscure? Well, we're in a weird place where we start with the Levée en masse and then agree to ignore the French so that we can talk about the evolution of the Prussian-type ideal liberal national state. The old argument is that true universal conscription is only possible in the liberal national state that has its origins in the French Revolution but which was perfected in Prussia. So conscript armies are just something that happens at the end of history. No need for further examination.
Except that it is a biggie. Just a few years before 1872, there weren't mass conscript armies, and only our obsession with the awesomeness of Prussia obscures this. And, today, there aren't conscript armies again, for the most part, and it's completely unsurprising that there aren't. Britain even tried to bring in conscription after WWII out of some sense that the nation had been doing nit wrong, and managed to prove what the critics had been saying for years. National Service didn't work!
Or, maybe, it worked for the fifty years between 1872 and 1918. But if that's true, if that's the historical conjuncture, then it's up to us military historians to explain what the hell happened. We have big wars, and also a humungous depression, and also the Lebel Rifle and its descendants. It seems like these are not historical events of equal weight, that the Long Depression must be bigger and deeper than the other two. I'm inclined to agree, but also to suggest that the Rifle might be a symptom of the depression, or rather of its causes, and use it as a probe to understand this period of dynamic change..
So what about the extraordinary resurgence of "volunteers" and "militias" that culminated with the Prussian Landwehr going to battle in 1866? Back to the story of 1813, again, which is of Germany awakening and chasing out the French with a truly popular army. It's politics. Here, I could do what Daniel Klang taught me to do and look at the Paris of 1848. Apparently, this is when the Revolutionary era ended. Specifically, when Louis Philippe's Civic Guard declined to fire on the mobs to save the July Monarchy, they acted in the tradition born of the Revolution in which governments lacked presumptive legitimacy and there was a point when their armed forces would refuse to kill for them. A few months later, the Guards did fire, to preserve de Tocqueville's "Parliament of Notables." In the moment when rural constituencies demonstrated that they were perfectly willing to return France's natural ruling class to the assembly, the Revolutionary era ended. (de Tocqueville's interpretation; My interpretation.) Volunteer militias could now (again) become the middle-class counterbalance to the unrestrained violence of the lower class. There's a lot that could be said about this, but most of it is bog-standard historiography, so, in the interest of being at least a little different, I'm going to take it in a slightly different direction, starting with the war of the Sonderbund.
But first, talking about the corrupting effects on democracy of local notable dominance makes me, at least, think about Boss Hawg. So, badly recorded but worth some attention, here's Boss Hawg to lighten up this here front page:
So, for Wikipedia, the War of the Sonderbund is the repression of a "special federation" of seven of the Catholic cantons of Switzerland, mostly the fabled "Forest Cantons" by the central government. The discussion here, unfortunately omits the preliminaries of the conflict, which involved bands of "free sharpshooters" (Freischärler) invading the Catholic cantons to oppose the decision of the Catholic cantons to allow the Jesuit Order to reorganise their schools. It's heroic riflemen against evil Jesuits!
That's the story that I want to start with. Not with conscription, nor even the rise of the liberal-national state. With the rifle as a machine of Progress.
The second strand of the story is told by Richard Perren in his fact-packed account of the long agricultural depression in Britain that began in 1872. Between 1842 and 1872, English agriculture was transformed by "high farming," a particularly intensive form of traditional English agriculture that emphasised the production of huge amounts of meat, and incidentally manure. Fed by massive imports of oilcake as well as domestic forage, the cows and sheep of England pooped the day long, and their product, combined with superphosphates from ironmaking slag and an increasing supply of nitrates, enriched the soil, making possible heroic rotations of turnips, wheat, pasture grass and alfalfa that absorbed massive amounts of labour, primarily of horses but also of people, into a constant turning of the soil. The forage was turned back over into the support of these massive herds, and the relatively minor final output of wheat found a ready market amongst British consumers in spite of free trade in corn. Fuelled by the profits of the boom, even more labour went into the spread of underdrainage through 4 million acres of traditional English wet pasture to open up even more arable. It was an age of improvements.
And then the price of grain began to fall. At first it seemed like a blip, or bad weather. People blamed the deflationary effects of the massive French indemnity paid to Germany in 1872, (Wars, like elections, have consequences.) I was going to stumble about the Internet looking for fragments of evidence for the familial and demographic impact of the Depression in Britain, but it turns out that Dov Friedlander anticipated my speculation back in 1992. The Depression was bad for family formation. Many young men delayed marriage, and a larger proportion than usual did not marry at all.
Now I want to talk about the rifles. I discussed previously the gradual evolution of the muzzle-loading musket into the breech-loading magazine rifle, and the way in which the Lebel Rifle, introduced by the French army in 1885, represented a pretty significant step in this transition. Tactically, I consider the key change the reduction in calibre from the >12.7mm of the muzzle era (that is, a very big bullet) to the 8mm of the Lebel. Of all the changes the new round brought, the ability to carry more ammunition was decisive in the end in transforming European armies' relationship with the landscape, and thus the kind of skills that they called out of the civilian economy and injected back into it.
But that's not how things were perceived at the time. It was the higher muzzle velocity of the rifle that seemed most important. By giving a graze range of 300 meters, the new rifle ensured that European infantry would be able to engage over open sights ("battle sights") out to the practical, terrain-limited range of visibility. And by giving a viable danger space and a reasonable dispersal zone at 1000 yards, they made it possible for large units of infantry to contest ground out two-thirds of a mile from their position. Notice that the visibility constraints here are the same as at 300 yards. There aren't likely to be many cases in which 80 infantry can see a space 1000 yards distant from their position. The point is that it is considered important that they be able to engage it when they can.
Clearly, this was important. While the Germans and British opted for gradual, piecemeal adoption of elements of the new technology due to the cost of adopting an entirely new weapon, the firm of Paul Mauser & Sons, having previously won significant German contracts, began to seek more ambitious possibilities from smaller armies. The upshot was the "Spanish Mauser," the Mauser model M93, of which you can read many fascinating details ad nauseum on the Interwebs, although it suffices here to note that Mauser further reduced the calibre to 7mm. Spanish army procurement usually isn't a big deal in histories of European technology and warfare over the last two centuries, but there was this thing about Cuba, and, to make a long story short, the big military story of 1898 was Teddy Roosevelt leading his Rough Riders into the teeth of the deadly Mausers, in a battle that the United States forces almost managed to lose in spite of outnumbering the Spanish by 19,000 to 800. (It turns out, unsurprisingly, that the story has both blacks doing all the real work and an inventor whose biography does not go out of its way to advertise a very rich father-in-law.)
The "Spanish Mauser" gave birth to a range of new weapons. This is a bit complicated in that we have to distinguish the Mauser action, which everyone ripped off, and actual Mauser designs, so the best that we can say is that the Mauser design inspired the Japanese army's Arisaka 6.5mm, and the inspiration is even more indirect for Fedorov's incredibly precocious Russian proto-assault rifle of 1915. Things get even more guns-and-ammo obsessive when you consider the new bullet designs that came along in the 1895--1905 decade that led to the Mausers that, just as at the Battle of San Juan Hill, seemed to give Boer defenders an excessive advantage over the British during the Boer War.
Meanwhile, important technical advances had been made in propellants, with the rise of dual-base propellants adding nitroglycerin to the nitrocellulose. So what is the general reaction to this? This, this, and, to get parochial, even this. Consistently, more powerful propellants are coupled with smaller rounds to produce a higher velocity round. Britain, France, and even little Canada thus entered WWI with rifles that turned out not to work properly. Britain was stuck with a rimmed cartridge going into the Second World War, and expended endless engineering effort making a sixty-year-old round work in modern machine guns. France, having intended to once again wrong-foot the Germans with a massive technological step forward, instead had to fall back on the obsolescent Lebel.
Now, it is possible that the high velocity rifles of 1914 could have been made to work, that, if WWI had been put off until 1916, the French Army would have gone to war with a mass of awesome semi-automatic rifles firing 7mm rounds at an amazing 3000ft/sec. The question is: why? It's not to extend the grazing range, because being able to level your rifle at an enemy 400 yards away instead of 300 is irrelevant when you are hardly ever going to have the opportunity. It's to increase the lethality of company fire at 1000 yards.
Here's the thing: at one level, the bolt action magazine rifles of 1914 are the purest, deadliest individual weapons never issued to the infantry. No energy is being spent on automatically reloading the round. it all goes into the bullet, producing accurately placed lethal wounds at ranges that no other individual-served weapon has ever achieved. (Caveat: I am not a guns and ammo freak, and I will undoubtedly turn out to be wrong.)
But this is crazy. We're calling on the 80 man fire unit to give fire as quickly as possible. We're asking human beings to pull a bolt, push a bolt, level a weapon to a sight, fire, repeat four times, then hand reload as quickly as possible and repeat. Even at the turn of the last century, people got that this was the kind of human labour that could be automated. Not by a machine gun, mind you: a (heavy) machine gun lacks the dispersal zone of 80 infantrymen with powerful rifles and thus cannot be used to control spaces 1000 yards out. Obviously batteries of machine guns can do just that, but that wasn't on the operational horizon in 1914.
No, the obvious automation technology is the semi-automatic rifle. The French have already decided that the future lies with the SAR. That's the whole point of the Meunier Rifle. The reason that the Meunier didn't work was that the French army was clinging to the high velocity round. If they, or, for that matter, the British Army had just adopted one of the smaller-calibre rounds descended from the Mauser 7mm that had provoked this whole technological demarche in the first place, they could have had assault rifles instead of stumbling about in the bushes trying to combine the automatic shoulder fire weapon with rounds that were just too big for human beings to shoot.
What happened? Why was the ability to control space at 1000 yards so important? It's not like there weren't already weapons that could do the work. (That would be your artillery.)
My provisional answer: the tool produced work. It gave conscript infantry something that they could do. I don't think that we're seeing the working out of a coherent tactical/economic project here, mind you. I think that the political valorising of the free-shooting riflemen made it impossible for general staffs to reject the minor tactical gains of the powerful new cartridges, and that the presence on the battlefield of dumb masses of conscripts encouraged tacticians to make up jobs that they could do, jobs that called for the rifles that people wanted to equip the infantry with.
I'm going to call this go-along-to-get-along. It was a bumbling solution to a whole set of conjunct problems, quickly exposed by the test of war, in the main because it was trying to solve problems that had nothing to do with tactics and technology. In retrospect, we know that the solution wasn't better rifles: it was jobs for the rural underemployed! God may speed the plough, but there will never again be a need for anything like the number of ploughmen that there was in 1872. Soaking them up for a few years of conscript military service is not a solution, because the (farming) jobs are not coming back. Whether it is because of the rise of permanent pasture in Britain or of farm machinery in the New World, the peasant boys of the armies of the old order need new jobs, not new rifles.