A Prophecy of the Great War

H. G. Wells’ 1903 short story “The Land Ironclads” is considered a visionary tale about the use of (then imaginary) tanks in combat. But I think many readers have overlooked the equally prophetic details about the world war which would occur eleven years after the story was published. For a civilian, and a pacifist, Wells’ description of the future battlefield was remarkably accurate, right down to the precise details of trench fighting that would become a deadly reality from 1914-1918. It was known to contemporaries as the “Great War.”

In the beginning of the story the protagonist, a journalist, says of the futile stalemate “And this is war!” To which a young lieutenant responds, “No… it’s Bloch.” Few readers today would get the reference. It’s to another visionary author—Jan Gotlib Bloch (1836-1902), the Polish-born Jewish banker and theorist who wrote the now-forgotten work Is War Now Impossible? (Paris, 1898) which foresaw that a number of technological changes would render the massed infantry and cavalry tactics of the past impossible. Unfortunately, it seems that few political or military leaders paid much attention to his analysis.

Bloch argued that new firearms technology and the advent of Maxim machine-guns would make Napoleonic-style maneuvers over open ground costly and ineffective, and that armies would resort to elaborate systems of entrenchment. Industrial societies would no longer resolve conflicts with small professional forces but would levy millions of men in battlefronts that would cover hundreds of miles. Due to these factors warfare would settle into a drawn-out contest of attrition.

Bloch proved to be as prescient about the political effects as the military ones. The prolonged strain of warfare would lead to revolution. As it turns out, the Tsar in Russia was replaced by the Communists and the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary) were forced to seek peace as the result of widespread discontent that led to large mutinies within the armed forces. It was the cumulative impact of human and material damage, rather than a decisive battlefield event, that determined who would win in the end.

As for Wells’ story, he was striving for dramatic effect, which made him overly optimistic the debut of the tank. His armored fortresses are far more powerful, mobile and invincible than the first lumbering machines fielded by the British at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Indeed most early tank losses were due to breakdowns rather than combat conditions. The real breakthrough power of armored warfare predicted in “The Land Ironclads” was not exploited until the Second World War, with the German Blitzkrieg of Poland and France. Combined with advances in aerial warfare and motorized logistics, and the intelligent deployment of these new assets, the Bloch stalemate was finally overcome.

“The Land Ironclads” is reprinted in The Complete Short Stories of H. G. Wells (ed. John Hammond). For a related discussion, see Mr. Wells Predicts the Future. Further details about the author can be found in The Life and Liberties of H.G. Wells and H. G. Wells’ Contrarian Vision.

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