Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Fall of France, X: A Machine For Controlling Space, VI: The Prince de Ligne died of his wounds at an undisclosed location in Belgium today.*

The Electric City is in danger! One of those unconsciously revealing snips of history, from 1914.

"The inventor of the Lewis gun was not the only American who played an inconspicuous but none the less important part in [this first campaign of World War One]. A certain American corporation doing business in Belgium placed its huge Antwerp plant and the services of its corps of skilled engineers at the service of the Governmen . . . . This concern made shells and other ammunition for the Belgian army; it furnished aeroplanes and machine-guns; it constructed miles of barbed-wire entanglements and connected those entanglements with the city lighting system; one of its officers went on a secret mission to England and brought back with him a supply of cordite, not to mention six large-calibre guns which he smuggled through Dutch territorial waters hidden in the steamer's coal bunkers. And, as though all this were not enough, the Belgian Government confided to this foreign corporation the minting of the national currency. For obvious reasons I am not at liberty to mention the name of this concern, though it is known to practically every person in the United States, each month cheques being sent to the parent concern by eight hundred thousand people in New York alone.

Incidentally it publishes the most widely read volume in the world. I wish that I might tell you the name of this concern. Upon second thought, I think I will. . ."

And that's American war correspondent E. Alexander Powell's account of the Bell Telephone Company's part in the defence of Antwerp in his instant book, Fighting in Flanders, uploaded here at what appears to be a stranded web page, so that I don't know how to credit it. It was a defence, Powell has to admit, that did not go as well as  hoped. Unbelievably, defences as strong as these

Photo by Donald Thompson: Source: Wilson's History of the World War**

weren't strong enough. Perhaps it was time to rethink things a bit.

Or maybe not. Get those Boches!

Er, unless they're in a strong position, in which case this might be a bit dangerous. You know: a strong position like these:

Why, with all those riflemen packed into those trenches shoulder to shoulder like that, there'd be a veritable wall of bullets sweeping the embankment. No-one could survive. Better to fight from position to position, as in this artist's reconstruction of the "Hougoumont of Belgium." (Although technically the original Hougoumont was in Belgium, too, on the slopes below the Coal Wood.)

Which brings us back to Antwerp, the strongest city in Europe. Supposedly. The quote above tells us about Bell Telephone's role in the defence of the city. Elsewhere, Powell goes on at length about the devastating effect of clearing Antwerp's massive glacis for siege. Since Antwerp's defences are 7 miles deep, that's a great deal of glacis, and not all of it can be covered by inundations. Powell tells us about the barbed wire entanglements and the (electric) mines. Note the crazy mention of "tying the wire into the city electrical supply." It's not enough that it's barbed wire. It has to be an electrical fence, too. 

The reality, which Powell does not well cover, is that obstacles have to be covered by fire. I'm not going to go over that in detail, because I still have to cover the French army reforms of the early 1920s, the single greatest social change of the 20th Century that no-one remembers, but Powell does notice that "machine guns and quick firers" are being deployed in every available place to cover the gaps. When the Germans push their human waves of infantry into the gaps, they'll be shot down in droves.

Oh. Right. "Quick firers." What are those? I'll let the navy answer that question with a publicity still:

The quick-firers are those little guns being served by the gallant matrosen (Or more likely, stokers) in the bottom picture. The upper picture shows the way that the guns are crammed in, around, and over the main guns, while the middle picture provides bonus information, just in case you were wondering what are these surplus gun crews were supposed to do during the long range large caliber fight. They lie down and hide behind the gun turrets, safe as houses!

You see, ships of the line carry big guns on their lower decks, which they fire at each other's hulls, seeking to dismount enemy guns and punch holes to let water in. Meanwhile, the matrosen are all up on deck, pulling on ropes and climbing those rigging thingies.  In the old days, you wanted a few carronades*** to sweep all the gallant sailor men and their ropes and their sheets away in order to bring those dastardly "enemy then flying" to battle. Or, alternatively, the pirates a-rowing in their galleys, knife in their teeth and every other orifice. 

But as "point blank" ranges edge out to the nose-bleeding hundreds and even thousands of yards, technology that worked for Nelson no longer worked quite so well. Fortunately, in our dear Queen's day, we have rifled, breech-loading   guns that, if they are small enough, can literally be fired as quickly as someone rams a shell home in the breech. Small explosive shell from these "quick-firers" will do the job of the old carronade, sweeping the enemy upperworks clear. 

You lose the thread a little when warships get rid of their rigging, of course, but this is 1914, and that just didn't happen that long ago. Besides, there are still lots of guys up above the armour on modern warships, doing stuff like, er, crewing the quick-firers. 

Which rather brings us to the Selborne Scheme, and a great many surplus quick-firers being brought ashore. I assume that those are the guns that are being brought out of the arsenals to cover Antwerp's glacis, although we should remember that the quick-firer concept has turned out to have some developmental potential in land warfare, and looks quite promising as a tactical weapon. Anyway, that's the story. Antwerp as forts and guns, and a massive protected glacis with lots of quick-firers and machine guns "planted" on it, covering the electrified barbed wire and the electric mines and the goofy man-traps. 

Meanwhile, Belgian "irregulars" are trying to delay the German advance. That's where the Prince de Ligne just got himself killed, going after an unblown bridge in the machine gun ring of an improvised armoured car, presumably not one of the ones built by the Bell works, since apparently it was underarmoured. (The new makes of armoured cars, Powell writes in 1914, are so heavily armoured that they laugh at bullets and shell fragments.) Now, if you read French literature in a certain era, you will know the Prince's name, not from anything that he did, but by virtue of Charles-Joseph Lamoral, 7th Prince de Ligne, Imperial field-marshal and son of a field-marshal, gardener and literateur. 

It would be a bit of a digression to talk about armoured cars at any length, but it is interesting to note that in a World War II context we'd barely consider the Prince's vehicle an AFV at all. It didn't have a turret, and it was only armed with a Lewis Gun. In 1914, however, a machine gun is to be discussed alongside a "quick firer," and the legendary soixante-quinze is just a quick-firer. To be sure, by the numbers, the French 75 is a  much more powerful weapon than a machine gun, but once we put it in a line of continuity with the "quick firers" of the Antwerp defence, which presumably included weapons more like this, the comparison is easier to make. 

As we know, however, Antwerp wasn't taken by human waves of attacking Prussian infantry, a tactic that was tried at Liege, and actually had some success, precisely in infiltrating imperfectly covered lines of approach. Instead, Powell admits, the Germans just planted their big guns 12 miles away and smashed the city to flinders in a way that will be very familiar to the children of the people invoved. The online text that I've already linked to even has the obligatory pictures of a big old stone church sloughing away its masonry into a delta of rubble.  

This should not have been that much of a surprise. Liege had already been taken by the smashing effect of great guns. The progress of modern cannon-making towards the German 420mm M-Gerat and the Austro-Hungarian Skoda 305mm Model 1911 was perfectly well known, and the proximate stimulus, the Japanese use of 280mm Krupp coastal mortars during the siege of Port Arthur, was the subject of thousands of pages of military journalism and "lessons learned" studies. The reason that Powell is surprised that Antwerp fell so quickly is... Well, I don't know, actually. Maybe he wasn't. Maybe this is just journalism. Or maybe we're seeing the very rapid evolution of a thinking man's understanding of how war works. Here's the last picture I have from this volume of Wilson's Illustrated History of the World War, taken just as the Ypres fighting was getting under way:

I could have chosen one from a few pages earlier showing how this whole "indirect fire" thing works, but this one seems more telling. Powell's illustrator is looking, from the safe vantage point of the road north from Boulogne and the Communications Area of the BEF, towards the hills of, yes, the Coal Woods. The caption indicates that beyond the hills are death. On this side, it is safe to be out in the open, driving wagons and riding horses. Beyond, in the fighting zone, death by fire is a constant menace. All those bullets and shrapnel have to go somewhere. Men need to be dispersed. Control of ground has to be thought of in terms of firepower rather than of units, and that means finding ways to increase firepower while reducing the number of men. (Instead of, precious distinction, increasing the firepower per man, as the Meunier Rifle is supposed to do.

Powell is learning. We're all learning. Now, here's the thing. When Powell says that the siege guns of Antwerp are set up "twelve miles away," he's exaggerating or eliding or something. They were twelve miles away from the city centre, but that was so that they could engage the ring forts at their extreme effective range of significantly less than 10,000 meters. That's considerably less than the range that refits were coaxing out of WWI-retread 75s by 1940. (Less, in fact, than could be improvised out of dropping a field gun into a field howitzer caisson.) I don't know if the guns were moved forward later to engage Antwerp's civil centre, or if the "strategic bombardment" he discusses was falling on a suburb. What I do know is that the gunmakers of the prewar period weren't thinking about weapon range. 

This brings me back to the original quote. Here's one of the greatest telephone equipment manufacturing facilities in the world. The country that houses it has gone to war, and it loyally seeks to serve the war interest. How? By making electrified barbed wire; by making improvised armoured cars; by making aeroplanes, for Heaven's sakes. 

Here's a proposal: why not make telephones? And here's the conceptual error, or rather the distance that we are going to be evolving from the World War to 1939, as Chris Williams will remind us. That control and communications are instruments of war is just not part of the intellectual arsenal of even the most bloodthirsty and warlike of professional military journalists. It's not like these men are technologically backward. The scion of a great Belgian military-literary family careening about the countryside in an armoured car? Awesome! The fall of the supposed greatest city of Europe to guns that can theoretically be outranged by properly-made field artillery, while the city's brand new electrical grid is basically being pumped into the ground? That this is an issue is not even on the conceptual horizon. 

Because here's the thing that I take away from the pictures that I've shown you, and one that I forgot to take, of an infantry company stopped for a messing break that really gets across the sheer numbers that we're talking about in a picture that clearly hasn't been staged. The armies of 1914 are as large as they can possibly be. They exist, have been organised, to take as many men as possible. 

In this sense, this posting about a fortress city is a counterpoint to my discussion of the Selborne Scheme. The Royal Navy, facing a manpower shortage, is adopting the new technology of the turbine and the new tactics of the all-big gun battleship that, however little its architect understands the issues, will lead in turn to the new command and control technology of "fire control." Meanwhile, the armies of Europe are being built up on the basis of finding ways to (under)employ as many men as possible. The Germans are going to war without a true answer to the 75, because it would be expensive, and the French without an answer to the  Leichte 105mm field howitzer because likewise. In retrospect, these were not the correct choices, tactically speaking. 

If I ever find myself transported to some crosstime universe where, uhm, I don't know, the Polynesians went west instead of east, and [something something something] it ended up with Oceanic-speaking Europeans refighting the Wars of Religion (because what historical thing is worse than Catholicism/Styphonism?) with WWI-era technology, I'll use my vast military historical knowledge to cut infantry division strength from 12 to 9 battalions and use the money I save by calling up fewer conscripts to buy an adequate artillery arm instead.  And light machine guns, of course --but I don't want to use all my material in a single post, so I won't push that one. 

Or would I in this hypothetical counterfactual? If Europe ended up going to war with the navies that it needed in the red-hot heat of all-out industrial arms-racing competition, it went to war with the armies that it wanted. That's an interesting contrast. I find myself, after all my contrarianism and revision, coming back to a very old revelation. The armies of 1914 were structured to maintain the ancien regime even at the expense of winning wars. 

I've already explained why I think that this was the case, that these armies were an important social safety net for the chronic underemployment that was the hidden cost of High Farming. It's just that this time round, I have sepia-toned pictures from that last summer of innocence, showing all those "surplus" young men crammed into a trench trying to do the work of a single light machine gun, perhaps even one mounted in an armoured car, in the last instant before surplus is turned into deficit by a well-placed howitzer air burst. If the past belongs to a labour gang ready to launch the hay mow in the last minute before the rains come, the future is on the factory floor. 

*Alternate proposed title: "Hey, look! Erik got himself an iPad!"
**I know that as bibliographic citations go, that one won't hold water, but I'm not done with these volumes yet. Patience.
***"A short, smoothbore cast-iron cannon developed for the Royal Navy by the Carron Company of Falkirk, Scotland." Yes, it's true. Some late Eighteenth Century Scotsmen invented the concept of the short-barrel, smoothbore cannon. It's amazing that those first sixteenth century iron gunfounders just jumped straight to making long-barrel, steel, rifled guns. Amiright? Sheesh. While it's cool that the Carron Works gave Watt his first contract, check out Guilmartin, Gunpower & GalleysOr, better yet, someone could go to the Archivo Bellico di Venezia and do some actual research on the last centuries of fighting oars. This has been your Worst Patent Troll Ever of the Week.

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