Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Fall of France, X: A Machine For Controlling Space, II: Peloton et Equipe

This starts with some not-so-random-at-all thoughts inspired by the current state of the Vancouver retail market. I have blogged about why I think that the new Canadian Census results might explain these later in this vacation week, over on my (more) self-indulgent blog.  Check it out, if you like.

The thought is that governments get into far more wars than they ought, for confirmation of which thesis see the history of Afghanistan. The proximate reason that this happens is that there are always loudmouths about who, for some reason that is only incomprehensible to me because I am unwilling to believe that the average workplace shit disturber isn't just laughed off the national stage. 

Or, turn it over again, and perhaps we do recognise them and let them go about their work because we see advantage to it. Not the governments, of course: far too many ministries have fallen as a result of wars that they started. Of course, governments are just people, and people's private destiny is different from their public. Sure, you may get voted out of office in disgrace, but being really, really rich must take some of the sting out of it.

So there are wars, and there are constituencies that want them. And that has to be true of the soldiers, too. By and large, war (or at least military service) has to offer them enough compensation to turn passive (or worse) resistance into grudging (or better) acquiescence. I've suggested that those compensations are the ones that recruiting sergeants have always emphasised: money, skills training and social capital. 

I've also suggested that a massive investment in the skills/knowledge capital of the workforce ought to have its consequences, and that this might help explain the post WWII boom. At the same time, we have a pretty obvious counter-example in the First World War, which was followed (at length), by a Great Depression. I know that the economists like to argue that the Great Depression was a financial markets failure, but that can't be the whole of the story. It remains the case that the armaments making industries that expanded rapidly in 1914--18 floundered and failed in their attempts to transition to peace, while their WWII counterparts moved more-or-less smoothly into consumer goods production. 

It's a difference worth looking at, and so is this.

The point of the title of this blog post is that the French use the same words for sports team and the Tour de France as they do for small infantry units! I assume that sports historians have worked this over at length, although this this random package of readings for a course on sports history at a British Columbia community college that clever Google found for me has no articles on the subject. The point of the video is that it's less politically loaded than this

Unless you count the politics of gender, but my take on this is that the parade step was always been about erotic performance. You think you're celebrating your monolithic state when your aging President takes the salute from his massive parade mount; but the reality is that the people marching are doing this to elicit exactly the reaction that you had, dear reader, to either the "Beautiful Chinese Pink Army" or  the Chilean army conscripts in my link. You think that the history of war and armies is all about the agency of the state, when the soldiers you're looking at are really just trying to pick you up. You can rationalise the parade step as a mode of physical exercise all you like, but it's a tool of bottom-up agency, first.

Other tools of ascending as well as descending agency:  the Baker Rifle; the Minie Rifle; the "needle gun;" the Lebel Rifle; the Lee-Metford; the Lee-Enfield; and the Pattern 1913 Enfield. They're not nearly as sexy as the parade step, but I do think that they can be seen as instruments of bargaining with and against the grain of hegemony. Here's what I think was bargained.

Rifles are simple: spun projectiles in ballistic trajectories in atmosphere are free objects in space. That means that angular momentum tends to be conserved. Do the physics, and you will come out with a lifting effect that flattens the trajectory of the bullet and a precession towards the axis of spin imposed by the passage down the grooved barrel that spun it up in the first place. Rifles are more accurate than muskets. They have less dispersal around the ideal trajectory described by the direction in which the muzzle is pointed, and they have greater grazing range and danger space.

The disadvantages that caused rifles not to be widely adopted for war as opposed to hunting are well known, and applied equally as well to the open countryside of Afghanistan and the Maghreb as to the closer country of Europe. Nevertheless, the American Revolution saw American militia, sometimes armed with hunting rifles, opposed to riflemen, usually but not always German jaegeren. This attracted enough attention that the French armies of the Revolution at first made extensive use of rifles, while the British kept the .63 caliber Baker rifle in service from 1800 to 1837 alongside the last generation of the .75 calibre Tower Musket.

But back up for a moment, because it is not precisely obvious where these "Jaegers" came from. The easy explanation is that German hunters have been using rifles for a very long time, but it is also wrong, because the Jaegers available for hire in 1776 were armed with military-pattern rifles and trained to use them. How, exactly, did that happen?

Not to bore you with the details of Eighteenth Century warfare in a post that's trying to get to the 20th, but the mid-century Central European wars threw up a new attention for something called the "little war," the war of skirmishing and ambuscades that occurred alongside the larger war of battles and sieges. I think we've probably lost the forest of the little wars in the trees of its heroes a little bit, from the "wild Croats and Pandours" to Trenck, Laudon, and Linedenau, of whom I  have linked before. The little war was a far more everyday enterprise than the occasional heroics of a few great men. 

Another place where we can be led astray is with respect to tactics. Historians have been (intermittently) arguing about how cavalry charged on the battlefield for a long time. Gavin Robinson has been out about the web discussing his work on the subject over at Investigations of a Dog.

So here's a pretty picture, taken from a country road looking down on the Naramata Bench,* across the lake from Penticton, British Columbia.

Black Widow Winery, from the Wines of Canada website. Book your next vacation now.!

Say that you're leading a column of cavalry along the road and you see enemy infantry down in the fields past the vines, mowing hay. Do you seriously order your men to shake out into line, dismount, and open up a potting fire at them, as would apparently be advanced opinion about the proper use of cavalry? Of course not: you spur straight at them, trusting to the men behind you to shake out into line, and the speed of your horses to bring you to sabre's distance before you're even noticed, never mind the time it will take the enemy infantry to go and grab their muskets off the stands.

Now flip it around. Say that you're an infantryman mowing hay when the head of a cavalry column emerges around the corner of the road below. 
Same website, this time the Okanagan Mission area of south Kelowna, I think. No, seriously. Book that vacation right now. 

Do you go grab your musket and stand in an infantry square, waiting around pointlessly while the cavalry chooses to charge? Congratulations, because you've just done their work for them. (That is, you're not mowing hay any more.) More reasonably, I think, you'd pick up your musket and start sniping away. 

That bit you heard about line infantry not skirmishing? Well, horses need to be fed, and it's not like hay walks into your camp and lies down to be eaten. Nor do armies have attached corps of specialist hay-mowers. (Although the Indian Army had a corps of grass-cutters.) Who the heck other than the line infantry is going to go and mow that hay? And who the heck other than the cavalry are going to go out and make sure that the enemy doesn't mow hay? Because it would be really, really stupid to just let the enemy mow hay with impunity. 

This isn't to say that scattered musket fire is likely to do much good here. Rifles definitely have an advantage. It's just difficult to see how you secure that advantage. Technology, maybe? The basic outlines of the story are well known. In the 1830s, bruising encounters with Algerian jezails led the French to finally approve a "composite" bullet, making the Minie rifle possible. The Prussians went a different direction with the breechloading "needle gun," with a rifled barrel that nevertheless gave up considerable muzzle velocity, hence range and accuracy, to the various muzzle-loading Minie-style rifles of the other Powers. Denis Showalter gave us a classic account of the needle gun's clash triumph over its rival at the Battle of Königgrätz that highlights the extent to which the close ground in which the two armies clashed proved decisive. Had Benedek been able to fight the decisive encounter on open ground, history might have developed very differently. On the other hand, on the managed and productive landscape of Europe, how likely was that to prove?

The needle gun was theoretically overmatched by the chassepot in the Franco-German War. The Germans won, anyway, but that didn't mean that having a better rifle wasn't a good idea. The Lebel Rifle, the first modern rifle, followed.

And, well,  let's talk about this a bit more.  In my first post on this, I cited Palmer's old, old essay on the transition from "dynastic" to "modern" war. The crucial difference, Palmer thought, was the change from professional to conscript armies. That, of course, was 1942. In the years since, we've finally noticed that ancien regime armies were actually conscripted ("pressed"), although we usually in the context of lipsmacking scolding of the incipient totalitarianism of the Prussian state. Must have something to do with rye bread. 

As is often the case, what seems to be a story about a period turns out to be the story of the period in which its first historians were living. The French, as well as the British and everyone else, reacted to the "revolutionary" dangers of conscription by introducing professional armies. Volunteers were taken up as youths for a 10--12 year enlistment, at the end of which they were given the choice of discharge or of re-enlisting for a second term for a pension. 

On the face of it, it's a pretty awful deal. On the one hand, what employment can a 30-year-old get with no experience but the military? The opportunity cost of military service on these terms seems like it would more than balance out military income over the twelve-year enlistment, barring very good luck in looting. On the other, a good proportion of the marching army is going to consist of 30+ men, and how is that conducive to winning the operational war?

The other consequence brought out by the Franco-Prussian War is that the men who did gain useful experience in the army, mainly teamstering, did leave it. And that meant that the army bled technical skills. This is, however, usually framed in terms of a lack of reserves. This is true, but it could also be framed, again, in terms of the success of the Prussian army, which was conscripted in 1870, and the fall of the Empire and rise of the Third Republic, which introduced conscription as much because the First Republic had it as for any other reason. (That is, a long argument in favour of conscription and, implicitly, republicanism, was won by the republicans because they won the larger argument over how France was to be governed.)

So France now had a conscript army. Britain, for its part, went to a "short service" army, in which the first term of enlistment was reduced to 4-5 years, followed by 8 to 7 in the reserves. In either case, larger and less well trained armies resulted, with deep reserves, but, in the French case at least, potentially more politically volatile. 

Move forward to the triumphant return of General Ernest Jean-Marie Boulanger to the French army ministry in January 1886. Appointed by Freycinet and Clemenceau, his politics are usually described as conservative and monarchist, but in practice he seems to have been something of a wild-eyed radical. This problem of mistaking conservatism for total revolution is, admittedly, one that has been made a few times since.

Perhaps the reason that Boulanger is deemed to have been a conservative politician is that his main platform while he was still in the ministry was trying to start the heck out of a war with Germany. He built forts along the frontier, forbade the export of horses to Germany, and embraced the "radical" Lebel rifle. All techniques that turn out to work well in Civilization V, incidentally.** There's a lot of ways that you can take this. Into the politics of the Third Republic and Bismarckian Germany, of course, and into a meditation of how and why it was France, and not the United Kingdom or Germany, that constantly launched technological revolutions in warfare during the Nineteenth Century, and how we might frame technical policy in light of this. (Hint: check out the demographics. Boserup was right.)

But the point of this exercise is that I've just thrown out a huge hostage to fortune in describing Boulanger as a revolutionary rather than as the conservative that he considered himself to be. After all, this is the guy who eventually tried to overthrow the republic and restore the monarchy at the head of an armed movement. To deal with this, I'm going to get rid of the scare quotes around the Lebel rifle. Technologies aren't neutral. They can have political consequences.

To start, with notice that the Lebel was very much ahead of its time. Britain would persist with alternatives for another full decade. That's because it was such a huge technological change, criminally shortchanged in most history of technology by its identification as the "smokeless powder" weapon. Now, it's true that smokeless powder was a huge change, inaugurating the so-called invisible battlefield. But it was so much more.

First of all, "smokeless powder" is  nitrocellulose, a plasticised organic material usually made in this period by dissolving cotton in nitric acid, hence also "gun-cotton." At the same time that it was coming in as a propellant, it was widely used as the first plastic, leading to highly flammable movie film, hilariously-explosive billiard balls, and the Whalen Company pulp mill at Port Alice, B.C., via the First World War's demand for aircraft "dope." It thus substitutes an industrial product for gunpowder, which was basically an agricultural one, literally grown on farms. (Step one: plant a high protein plant; step two, mow it; step three, leave it to rot in the fields; step three, catch the runoff water in evaporating pans; step three, pick out the crystals. That's your saltpeter.) 

Second, nitrocellulose of course has the advantage of not producing smoke. This has its tactical benefits, but, probably more importantly, reduces barrel fouling, and thus the number of rounds that can be fired before the weapon must be cleaned. It also has the advantage of a much greater energy content than black powder and a much greater shockwave propagation velocity. A much smaller amount of nitrocellulose will propel a bullet much faster than gunpowder for a given rifle. It was quickly appreciated that there was no way that you could fire a .75 caliber bullet from a shoulder arm with nitrocellulose. The recoil would be too great, and likewise probably the bursting pressure on the breach.

To hear enthusiasts talk about weapon caliber, the reduction from .75 to the 8mm Lebel would have been the Worst Thing Ever To Happen To Rifles. It wasn't. The bullet was just as lethal, had a far greater grazing range and wider danger space, and you could carry far more of them, although some measure of the same advantage could be found even in the compressed black powder ammunition of the Lee-Metford. Just to underline the full implications of this change, Lebel added a tube magazine to his rifle, giving it the ability to fire 7 rounds before the shooter had to reload. 

To justify my claims about the social implications of the new rifle, I would point to the changing trajectory of European colonial wars in Africa over the next decade, which went from "win some/lose some" to "win always, usually without much fighting." I do not think that the spread of imperial rule in Africa in the 1890s was coincidentally the age of the new rifle. Never mind the slow, centuries-long rise of the west. The reduction of standard rifle caliber meant that ammunition columns could carry more rounds, and there was suddenly, and briefly, no point in African polities fighting.  I'm aware that others have made the same move in respect to the Gatling Gun, but I find my argument more persuasive. (I would, wouldn't I?) 

On the battlefield, this technical combination of volume of fire with range meant tactical change. The old paradigm of "Men Against Fire" holds that armies clung to basically Napoleonic tactics until they ran into machine guns in 1914. There's an extent, in places and at times, where this was even true, but it is certainly not the picture that one gets from reading actual tactical manuals. Woleseley (esp. 241ff) describes men going forward to the edge of the grazing range and going to ground, digging trenches beneath themselves while returning fire. In the rear, officers send up wave after wave of troops to thicken up the firing line, until, at last, a "superiority of fire" is achieved, at which point only is the decisive attack made. The author of the Ninth Edition's article on Rifles (which I cite here rather than the Field Service Regulations because I've got it at home) speaks of the technical means by which a unit of as little as 80-90 men can overcome skirmishers at a distance of up to 1000 yards, advising that with fewer men, there is no point in even giving fire, since a proper beaten zone cannot be established. 

What this means, in short, is that the Lebel rifle, in the hands of an infantry company or less, controls space absolutely out to 600 yards, and is able to seize and control it, over time, by giving a steady and high volume of rifle fire. The new warfare is thus dispersed in terms of control. The implicit tactical unit on the battlefield has become the company, rather than the battalion, putting more responsibility on junior officers, and reconnaissance has become a great deal more difficult. Above all, ammunition service will have to be on an unprecedented scale.

But there's a human implication here, as well. The rifle has become a profoundly operational weapon. It requires well-trained, fit men who keep up their training. The new armies are large, and deep with reserves. The reservists must be well-trained, fit men who keep up their training. 

How the heck is this conceivably going to work? Boulanger, and, I'd throw in, Northcliffe, thought that it could happen because of the rise of a new middle class of vigorous young men who loved novel technological toys and were (hopefully literally) dying for national revanche against the Enemy. If you read the yellow press, you'd get the idea that that was actually the case. If you think about the Beautiful Pink Army, you have your doubts. Young men might come out to a rally to shout their approval for Boulanger and the three Rs, but next year they'll melt away and the general will blow out his own brains in a Belgian churchyard. 

You do it because of what's in it for you. And that turns one's mind to the question of who wanted what. And at this point I'm going to wave my hands in the direction of another  literature that I haven't looked at in a while, so my faulty memory is shocked but unsurprised, if that makes sense, that I turn out to be referencing Ester Boserup's discussion of chronic underemployment in European agriculture.

My point here is that the  young men who are being asked to use the Lebel rifle to control (agricultural) space to carry out the agriculturo-military task of bringing in fodder for the army are, overwhelmingly, the poor young men of Europe's enduring and particular agricultural economy, an economy that requires a reserve army of the unemployed (and, yes, I'm misusing the classic phrase) sitting around the parish church of a sunny summer morning, instantly available on the day that the squire or the bailiff decides to call the hay mow. They're there in hopes of work, of course, but also to watch the girls, not that they'll have much to do with them.

If the Lebel rifle is to work, if it is to be taken up by the hands of men ready to use it, it will be because it offers them an alternative to underemployment. That's the bargain. From their perspective, the bargain is probably pitched in terms of the erotic capital of uniform drill and the pay they receive while on active duty. There is, perhaps, the benefit of experience, especially with horses, and the skills that they learn in the process, but I don't want to overstress this, as it seems like it might come mainly as the fruit of patronage, and who bets on that but those already favoured by fortune.

The long term outcome will be the end of rural underemployment; and, with it, the end of traditional European agriculture. We can choose to see that as the long term consequence of technological change and economic growth, and the story that I am spinning can be seen as an explanation for  how we got so much state-sector spending on that technological change and economic growth, and how important it actually was. 

That said, I'm trying to pitch a step-by-step story, and this is the rifle's step. The infantry peloton has become an operational weapon because of its new role in controlling space with fire. That means that the state must find an accommodation with the young, rural, working class man. He must be offered terms on which he will take up the weapon. The weapon must impose those terms on the state. That's the sweet spot that the Lebel rifle finds. 

These are thoughts that I've been having for a while. They're present in vestige in my earlier discussions of rapid-firing artillery, so perhaps they'll benefit from a summary review next time I discuss this, or perhaps I'll jump back to the 1920s and try to extract social change from the light machine gun. 

*I would have put this link in the main text if it weren't so darned weird. You think of an Okanagan Valley placename like "Naramata" and you think that it must be an Indian word. Which it is; but it's not a Salish name. It's the name (as "Narra-mattah") of the half-breed Indian princess who becomes the ancestor of the proprietors of Wish -ton-Wish, Connecticut, in James Fenimore Cooper's 1826 novel, Wept of Wish-ton-Wish. The novel itself isn't nearly as obscure as you might have been led to believe by Wikipedia, as it had many stage revivals during the antebellum. It's still a strange choice of names for a British Columbia hamlet. 

Though it might also have been chosen entirely deliberately.

**I  hope no-one was worried that I was wasting my vacation gardening or some such, although this is the season when Vancouver yards have to be patrolled vigilantly to stay ahead of the morning glories.

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