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The man who predicted the Great War

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BerichtGeplaatst: 25 Apr 2013 9:31    Onderwerp: The man who predicted the Great War Reageer met quote

Few foresaw the horror of the First World War. The financier Jan Bloch did and he outlined his vision to Britain’s military establishment, as Paul Reynolds explains.
hirteen years before the start of the First World War Britain’s military establishment was warned explicitly that offensive operations in a major conflict in Europe would be unsuccessful and that such a war would end only when one side was exhausted.

The prediction was delivered in 1901 at the Royal United Service Institution (now the Royal United Services Institute), a military think tank and discussion forum in Whitehall founded in 1831 by the Duke of Wellington. The warning came in a lecture given by the unlikely figure of Jan Bloch, or Jean de Bloch as he was later known. Bloch was not a military man, but a banker and financier, who was born in Poland in 1836 and rose to an influential position in the Russian empire, of which Poland was then a part. He was an important figure in Russia’s railway system and took an interest in international affairs. He called for arbitration to replace warfare as a way of settling disputes and organised a peace conference at The Hague in 1899 to further that aim.

He first laid out his thesis in a six-volume book published in Paris in 1898 called The War of the Future in its Technical, Economic and Political Relations. In it he argued that such was the power of defence in modern warfare that it would be impossible for major wars to be won, especially general European conflicts, without huge casualties.

Bloch concluded that governments would not, indeed could not, engage in war because they and their societies would be destroyed if they did so. He was right in his first idea and, of course, wrong in his second. He edited the work into a single volume, which was published in English in 1899 under the catchier title of Is War Now Impossible?

Bloch’s ideas were transmitted widely in Britain by the campaigning journalist W.T. Stead, who shared the financier’s enthusiasm for international arbitration. To help popularise Bloch’s thinking, Stead conducted a long interview with him, which was printed as a preface to the English edition of his book. Bloch first makes clear that he is not talking about colonial wars, which he calls ‘frontier brawls ... trumpery expeditions against semi-barbarous peoples’. He is talking of war in Europe: ‘That is to say, the long talked of, constantly postponed war between France and Germany for the lost provinces [Alsace and Lorraine].’

His argument was that, in modern warfare, soldiers could not reach the enemy because the last few hundred yards had become so deadly. First, there was the increased range of the smokeless rifle: 3,000 or 4,000 metres, or two to three miles. Then there was the fact that a rifle now had a magazine: ‘The possibility of firing half a dozen bullets without having to stop to reload has transformed the conditions of modern war.’ At that stage he was not aware of how much more destructive the machine gun would be. Third, there was artillery, already so powerful that a shell could ‘effectively destroy all life within a range of 200 metres of the point of explosion’.

Bloch dismissed the bayonet, comparing the generals’ attachment to it with the fondness of old admirals for sails, but he predicted the development of trench warfare:

Everybody will be entrenched in the next war. It will be a great war of entrenchments. The spade will be as indispensable to a soldier as his rifle. The first thing every man will have to do, if he cares for his life at all, will be to dig a hole in the ground. War, instead of being a hand-to-hand contest in which the combatants measure their physical and moral superiority, will become a kind of stalemate, in which neither army is able to get at the other, threatening each other, but never being able to deliver a final and decisive attack ... It is that war which, I maintain, has become absolutely impossible.

Bloch’s views were put before a British military audience at the Royal United Service Institution (RUSI) on Monday June 24th, 1901. His paper, read out for him in English, was so long that there had to be two further meetings to allow for questions, his replies and a concluding discussion.

That summer was a good moment for the RUSI to consider the state of modern warfare. An era had ended with the death of Queen Victoria in January of that year. Military technology was developing rapidly. In the background Germany was already planning how to fight a war against France and Russia. Britain’s splendid isolation was coming to an end; a treaty with Japan would soon follow and a secret military agreement with France would help determine which side Britain would take in a future war between France and Germany. More immediately there was the experience of the Second Boer – or South African – War, which had begun in 1899.

Some lessons could be drawn for, although the war would not be over until the following year, it had already moved into its final phase, in which the Boers were being reduced to a guerrilla force under the weight of British numbers. Among Bloch’s audience were Boer War veterans.

Bloch contrasted the siege of Paardeberg (February 1899), in which the Boers had surrendered after seeing off a direct infantry assault, with the battle for the hill of Spion Kop (January 1900), where the British were defeated in trying to relieve Ladysmith. (The nickname ‘The Kop’ was soon adopted by many British football clubs for their high-banked spectator terraces.) Bloch said: ‘The Boers fortified Paardeberg, whereas the British, owing to the rocky nature of the ground and other circumstances, found it impossible to raise entrenchments at Spion Kop.’

he result was that the Boers lost only 179 men at Paardeberg, while 1,500 Britons died at Spion Kop. In the Boer siege of Ladysmith itself conditions were reversed:

The Boer guns, when turned against British entrenchments, caused absurdly small loss. The losses of the four months’ bombardment of Ladysmith amounted to no more than 250 killed and wounded.

Bloch, like the British, had noted the skill with which the Boers constructed their trenches:

They constructed traverses at short intervals to prevent enfilading [exposure to enemy fire], and to limit the effect of explosive shells. Their bomb-proof shelters were constructed after the model of a bottle with a narrow opening, so that a shell could enter only by chance. Other trenches were constructed in a sinuous line, and a shell bursting in such a trench could wound only the two or three men in the section in which it fell. In addition, they dug caves in the fore parts of the trenches which were completely bomb-proof. These trenches were invisible, and masked by brushwood and other objects, so that there were 1,000 chances to one against any shell failing in them. Even when a shell did fall, the method of construction was such that its effects were confined to the actual point of fall.

Bloch predicted the demise of cavalry. They would not, in Europe, be able to turn a line of trenches, as Sir John French had done in South Africa to relieve Kimberley in February 1900:

The continuous fortifications upon all the European frontiers make it almost impossible even to attempt those flanking movements for which mounted men are so eminently fitted.

Bloch urged his audience to believe that the lessons of South Africa could be applied to a war in Europe:

It is evident that the main lesson to be drawn from the Transvaal War is that it is absurd to suppose that, whatever combinations be formed by any State or alliance of States, the results of a war of aggression can be regarded as hopeful against any great Power, or still more so against an alliance of Powers.

‘In discussions with soldiers,’ he added:

I have always met with the objection that the Germans would employ such masses of men that the lessons of the Transvaal War would have no importance. Many men, they say, would be lost, but the defenders’ lines would be broken all the same. It is necessary to observe that the military authorities whom I have already cited declare that the greater the masses the greater will be the defeat.

Bloch accurately anticipated that such a war might take place. ‘What will happen in a war ten or 15 years hence, and what will be the consequences?’ he asked.

During questions, it was clear that Bloch had not convinced everyone of his vision. Colonel C.M.H Downing of the Royal Artillery kept faith with his branch of arms:

I consider that the artillery in the attack still have the same role to play as ever, namely to support an infantry attack, and the only way to do that is by keeping down the fire of the defenders, without necessarily inflicting actual loss thereby.

Major General C.E. Webber, formerly of the Royal Engineers, accused Bloch of pacifism and attacked, as he put it, ‘so-called non-jingoism, or non-militarism, the namby-pamby so-called humanitarianism ... “peace at any price” into which our friend wishes us to retire’.

Colonel F.J. Graves objected that Bloch had ‘simply wiped the floor with us cavalry’. He contended that war was ‘not just a matter of ballistics ... I say there is nothing in the South African war ... which proves his [Bloch’s] case. I believe the cavalry ... have a great future before them’.

Such confidence was echoed in 1906 in another meeting at the RUSI, one on the future of cavalry chaired by Lieutenant General Sir John French, the hero of Kimberley. Brigadier General Edward Bethune, late of the 16th Lancers, who commanded his own mounted infantry in the Boer War, declared: ‘We want a great deal more cavalry.’ His view of modern arms can be seen in his comment on his choice of weapon for the cavalry: ‘I have a predilection for the lance.’

The military men listening to Bloch were, of course, sceptical about his claim that war was now ‘impossible’. They knew governments too well for that and in any case were obviously beginning to persuade themselves that new tactics could overcome the new problems, thereby making war very much possible. Admiral Sir E.R. Fremantle pointed out that huge casualties had not stopped war before. Foreshadowing the introduction of an overwhelming force like the nuclear bomb, he said: ‘Until we can produce a power like Vril in Bulwer-Lytton’s Coming Race, which can destroy armies wholesale, I am incredulous that wars will cease in all the world through any modern developments of instruments of war.’ Vril was a destructive energy force which featured in Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s novel of 1871.

In his summing up, the chairman of the meeting, Major General Sir J.F. Maurice, dismissed Bloch’s thinking, suggesting that artillery could still do its job:

If the result is that you shut up men like rats in a hole, it is about as good to you as if you had killed them on the spot. We should not be in too great a hurry to accept the conclusions of the lecturer as to the incapacity for their proper work of either artillery or cavalry.

The British military did not ignore Bloch. The dangers facing troops over the ‘last 500 yards’ had been recognised for decades, since Gettysburg in 1863 at least. The military’s response was not to dismiss the power of the defence. It felt the answer lay in increasing the power of the attack. Artillery, it argued, was the way to do this.

Here was a gap in Bloch’s analysis. He did not predict the development of indirect fire from heavy artillery, a characteristic of the First World War and, as a consequence, many artillerymen were inclined to ignore his warnings. In 1906 the Journal of the Royal Artillery published an article by Captain E. Nash, which reviewed the recent Russo-Japanese War:

Among these the most striking is the success of Japanese frontal attacks. After the South African war there were many who said that frontal attacks were impossible ... to say that ... was to say that the offensive could seldom succeed. In this latest war, the offensive has always succeeded.

However, in an account of Bloch’s thinking in the Journal of the Royal United Services Institute in 1992, Chris Bellamy concludes that the military never resolved the problem of what Bloch called ‘the horrors of the frontal attack’. Bellamy quotes prewar field regulations stating that a frontal assault against an enemy in a prepared position ‘was all the more unlikely to succeed’ and that therefore ‘a decision had to be sought on the flanks’. He notes that Bloch had predicted that there would be no use of flanks in a future European war because there would be no flanks – the whole front line would be entrenched and there would be no way round it. In the event, frontal attacks were mounted because there was no alternative, the hope being that artillery would destroy the defenders or at least keep their heads down. The failure of this approach quickly became apparent.

The British army did not trust artillery alone. It acknowledged that, for that last dash over ground exposed to fire, there would have to be better training for the soldiers. It is often forgotten that ‘Be Prepared’, Baden-Powell’s motto for the Boy Scouts movement he founded after returning from the Boer War, meant, as he put it: ‘Be prepared to die for your country, so that when the time comes you may charge home with confidence, not caring whether you are to be killed or not.’

The generals’ answer to the power of the defensive would in due course be tested. It turned out that Bloch’s ignorance about indirect fire did not make much difference to his predictions.

The war between Russia and Japan was on the face of it a setback for Bloch’s theory of war, because the Japanese offensive strategy was successful. However the main conclusion drawn from this war by a senior British observer on the Japanese side was not that war should be avoided because of the huge casualties it now necessitated, but that it could indeed be won. The observer was Lieutenant General Sir Ian Hamilton, later of Gallipoli, who wrote a book, A Staff Officer’s Scrapbook During the Russo-Japanese War, published in 1905, based on his experiences observing Japanese military strategy.

Imperial troops charge Russian soldiers at the battle of Yalu River, 1904. Contemporary print.
Hamilton was very impressed with artillery and wrote about receiving a telegram from a friend saying of the 1904 Battle of Yalu: ‘And so the big guns did it after all. Best congratulations.’ During a dinner at General Kadama’s Japanese headquarters, Hamilton advocated ‘the employment in war of something more powerful than an ordinary field gun’. The artillery lobby had Hamilton in its ranks and the Russo-Japanese War did not undermine its philosophy. Yet the leading British military writer of the time, Basil Liddell-Hart, used the same war as evidence that Bloch was right:

Nearly every disconcerting development in the World War was foreshadowed by the Russo-Japanese War – the paralyzing power of machine guns, the hopelessness of frontal attacks, the consequent development of trenches and barbed wire, and, to counter them, grenades and heavy guns. In the light of the Russo-Japanese War, it did not require a seer to foretell that, with much larger armies in a smaller space, the entrenched fronts would soon stretch across the whole frontier and stagnation ensue. Twenty years before, a Polish banker and amateur of war, Bloch, had foreseen it. And the only ground for surprise is that so few believed him.

The influential British strategist J.F.C. Fuller also praised Bloch:

His description of the modern battle is exact, for it is exactly as it was fought 17 years later. His prediction of the war was no less accurate. As Bloch had foretold, the ultimate arbiter was to be famine.

More recently the military historian Correlli Barnett noted:

Almost all prewar thinkers had agreed that the war would be short, decided in the great encounter battles. Only a Polish banker named Jean de Bloch ... had predicted a long war of attrition fought by armies locked into trench systems.

Bloch was not a lone prophet. A French captain, Emile Mayer, a contemporary of Marshals Joffre and Foch, the latter an ardent advocate of attack, wrote a handbook on artillery in 1890 and said: ‘The artillery will become the principal arm, the axis of manoeuvre ... Does this now mean that the advantage henceforth goes over to the defence?’ Another supporter of the defence was the French colonel, August Grouard.

France should have as its principle to leave the enemy the initiative of making the first moves and, when we discover them, to reply with an energetic counter-stroke on a well-chosen point.

This of course is exactly the opposite of what the French did in 1914, under their Plan XVII. They had became preoccupied by the spirit of the offensive. The French drew the conclusion from the war they had lost against the Prussians in 1870, that they had been too defensive and that an immediate attack in a future conflict would throw the Germans off balance. The attack duly took place amid appalling losses and led to a withdrawal. In turn, of course, the German offensive petered out on the Marne in September 1915. Liddell Hart noted, using a phrase Bloch himself would approve: ‘It was almost a mathematical certainty, by historical data, that the advance of the pursuing Germans into France ... would end in failure.’

Bloch realised that his ideas were being spurned:

Don’t let us blindly accept the view of those who pretend that the offensive has lost none of its value. One feels that a terrible surprise is in store and one knows, alas!, that the clue will be found in the blood of many human victims.

Bloch was spared the pain of seeing his theories proved correct and his prediction that war was now impossible proved wrong. He died of heart failure the year after his talk in London.

Paul Reynolds is a former foreign and diplomatic correspondent for the BBC.
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