Ivan Bloch was a Pole (it was Russian Empire in his contemporary world) wrote a 6 volume work entitled: The War of The Future, the last volume of which in Russian was published in 1897. Now you might be asking so what? Well what is interesting about this is how accurate his predictions were in terms of the influence technological developments which when looking a a modern industrial state saw a new advantage for the defensive element in war. In this he foresaw the trenches of World War I. He is little heard of now and one frequently hears of how people did not realise what war would be like even with the experiance of the American Civil War. But later wars had shown that armies could win large wars in a relatively short space of time, for example The Franco-Prussian War. But Bloch saw relatively recent developments as having a profound influence on the nature of war. So this is an attempt to show what he thought, how he came to think it and how accurate his predictions were.
“The 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 being able to get at the other both armies will be maintained in opposition to each other, threatening each other, but never being able to deliver a final and decisive attack”.
Bloch was writing in a time of change in warfare and became a key figure in predicting its future. He represented those who saw a major shift in the way war would be fought but one can see upon investigation that he was in a minority. His investigation produced many prescient points relating to the future of warfare but he was not completely correct. Firstly it needs to be understood that he was primarily writing about the way the next Great War would be fought. In relation to this he made various incorrect points in his analysis its nature. He also failed to realise the significance of other factors. Yet one must also consider the other wars close to his time of writing: The Boer War and the Russo-Japanese War. These provided much evidence for his thesis but failed to conclusively prove it for several crucial reasons. Perhaps it is also important to take a long-term view and consider how war changed following the 1st World War. Bloch did not really provide for further radical developments in technology that could give the attacker a new advantage. One is left feeling that essentially in the context of his time Bloch saw better than most of those around him what would come in a future Great War. He may have made mistakes and not been a prophet for the 2nd World War but his appreciation of the significance of new technology and a changing society and the impact of this on the nature of war was remarkable.
Bloch wrote at a time when the military was still part of a social conservative elite that was unwilling to accept change. Part of the power of this elite lay in its dominant exposition of the importance and greatness of valour on the battlefield. So when technology became increasing important and seemed to lend the balance of favour on the defensive this elite was unwilling to acquiesce in diminishing its glory. Warfare meant attack, decisive battles and courage. What those such as Bloch predicted was a military stalemate. A long drawn out bloody war which allowed for the indiscriminate slaughter of men in a previously unheard of anonymous fashion. Bloch discussed the new importance of artillery and entrenchment, the inability to out-flank an enemy and the impossibility of getting close to an enemy without suffering massive losses. According to Bloch the attacking power needed a ratio of 8:1 in its favour to stand a chance of victory over a defended position. He looked at the new sophisticated artillery capability: now easier to find the range, the range was also increased, higher explosives were used and the guns were capable of firing faster. He also emphasised the constantly improving rifle, which the French army changed 3 times in a 15year period as well as the crucial importance of the maxim machine gun. All this lead to his conclusion that the power of defence was far superior to that of attack.
This belief was highly unpopular in his time although he was not a lone voice. After the 1877-8 Russo-Turkish war General Oukanov said:
“Artillery will become the scourge of mankind…The day cannot be much longer delayed when artillery shall raise itself up from being an auxiliary to the rank of the principal arm”.
The Boer War produced a similar reaction amongst some. For example Colonel G.F.R. Henderson stated:
“It was not yet realised that the defender, occupying ingeniously constructed trenches and using smokeless powder, is practically invulnerable to both gun and rifle”.
In particular Baden-Powell wrote War In practice which notes the power
of machine gun
s which could make “certain zones impassable” and that long defence lines may be unturnable. Yet many adhered to another belief as expressed by those such as Colonel Foch who said:
“Fire is the supreme argument…To charge but to charge in numbers, therein lies safety…with more guns we can reduce his to silence.”
Furthermore the solution to the new power of mechanisation
lay in greater courage and a better moral grounding. This is very interesting to consider for Bloch’s arguments relating to the importance of the development of military technology were accepted rather it was the conclusions he drew about their impact that were rejected.
If one looks at contemporary literature one can see this being borne out. From the 1890s there was an increasing interest in writing about the next war. Amongst this proliferation came best selling works such as The Great War of 1892, The Great French War of 1901 and the 1913 La Fin de la Prusse et le demembrement de l’Allemagne. All these basically outlined a swift war of movement. This represents the popular feeling about the future war that Europe would face. It was within this context that Bloch attempted to convince a sceptical Europe of the overriding importance of what he was saying. But by 1913/14 one can go so far as to say that most army officers throughout Western Europe realised that in the next war losses would be great as reflected by General Altham in his Principles of War. In this he argues that the great problem would be convincing the soldiers to accept heavy losses in the fire zone and still keep going. One can see here the difference between popular literature and technical military literature. It is very important to remember this difference.
The Boer War was the first serious war to follow the writing of his work and provides interesting evidence for one who is investigating the validity of what Bloch was arguing. It showed the futility of firing volleys and using close formations. The British losses at Spion Kop and Modder River indicated how a thinly spread entrenched force could withstand concentrated attack. At Modder River the Boers extended 3,000 men across a 7,700-yard front yet it could not be penetrated. It was this sort of evidence that Bloch put forward at his 1901 lecture to the United Services Institute as supportive of his perspective. But many servicemen listening to him were able to respond that the British army had successfully adapted to the new realities of war. They looked to the Boer war and showed how the Boers had been pinned down by British firepower and how they had then had their flanks outmanoeuvred by cavalry. This war did not prove Bloch’s perspective on the war of the future rather it showed the potential of it be true in the future in a larger scale war involving equivalently industrialised nations.
The Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5 provided what was seen by contemporaries as the most important evidence of how a European War would be fought. The Russian armies faced many of the difficulties Bloch argued would be present: shortages of food and an ever-increasing list of sick that could not be provided for. Entrenchments were made but there were not consecutive trench defences and so artillery fire could overwhelm them. Yet the overriding importance of the machine gun was made painfully clear. As Kuropatkin stated:
“The value of machine-guns is now so great that we cannot afford to be without them.”
Their ability to simply mow down attackers was frightening. General
Nogi ordered that 203Metre Hill be captured whatever the cost with the result of their being 400 Russians wounded or killed and 10,000-11,000 Japanese wounded or killed. This meant that Western European observers could emphasise the importance of valour as ultimately defensive positions could be taken. But here Bloch’s argument still holds when one considers his proposition that where the attackers have an 8:1 advantage they have a chance of success. Furthermore traditionalists who argued the relevance of cavalry were able to use the Japanese
campaign to bolster their arguments and disprove Bloch who stated the demise of the cavalryman was an ongoing process.
Yet when the 1st World War came Bloch was proved correct in the essentials of his arguments. He spoke of a long drawn out war that would involve entrenchments:
“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.”
He further stated
“At first there will be increased slaughter on so terrible a scale as to render it impossible to get the troops to push the battle to a decisive issue.”
The scale of war did become so vast that individual victories such as the Battles of Tannenberg
and The Marne failed to bring the war to an end. He also correctly predicted the demise of cavalry and the new crucial dominance of artillery. He appreciated favour on the battlefield lay with the defender. Furthermore his detailed analysis of the weapons of warfare created an accurate description of the overwhelming firepower now in the hands of modern armies. He understood the brutality of the new fire-swept zone and correctly predicted the massive losses that would be incurred by any side that attempted to cross it. This is reflected following the lack of resolution after what has become known as the Battle of The Marne
. The Somme
along with the 3rd Battle of Ypres
best represents the tragic reality of the Great War. There was a week-long bombardment
of the Germans by the British combined with a creeping barrage. The volunteer army was perceived by the military commanders of being incapable of adapting to more complicated tactics such as the small unit ones employed by the French. It was left to move forward in the belief that the German positions were already destroyed along with their soldiers. This was to be the manner in which the race
for the parapet
was to be won. Unfortunately the howitzer used were not of the type which were capable of penetrating 30feet deep bunkers
. The result was huge British losses. For example the London Scottish
began the 1st of July 856men strong and ended it 266 strong.
The other key factor he looked at was the economic consequences of war. He argued that were would be severe disruptions to the financial systems and credit and securities decreasing in value by between 25 and a possible 50%. As he states it did lead to the issuing of paper money and increased borrowing which as he puts it was:
“A temporary expedient which would aggravate the difficulties with which we have to deal”.
basically closed between July 1914 and December
1914. The world as well as European economy was being seriously adversely affected. One can begin to be convinced that in his fundamental arguments relating to the next war Bloch was correct.
However there were several points he was wrong about. Firstly he stated that Russia would be best suited to fight a war of this sort. He argued that the town-dwellers who predominated in the other Western European countries armies were less able to cope with the privations of the next great war and that it was the Russian peasant who would be most suited to the calamities that war would bring. Secondly he predicted that medical aid at the trenches would be awful. In reality they were far superior to that at any war previously. At the Battle of the Somme in 1916 this was shown with the provision given to the men with the elaborate system that had developed that included the crucial casualty clearing stations. Yet even so a 3rd of the 21,000 deaths that occurred on the 1st day of the Somme could have been prevented if the wounds had been seen to within a few hours of their being inflicted. He was also wrong about the ability of the armies to be co-ordinated and the overriding dominence of Britain on the sea. For sea warfare actually was similar to land warfare being in a kind of stalemate for much of the war. He ignored other important factors that could be very important in war: in particular politics and consensus. The Somme attack was launched because of Joffre’s desire to have a victory on French soil under his command as were many of the problems for the Russians in 1904/5 caused by the conflicting views of the military commander General Kuropatkin and the Tsar’s favourite Admiral Alexiev. These political and personal decisions can aggravate an already problematic situation rendering any possibility of taking a course of action that might succeed severely undermined.
Looking at his predictions in the light of future conflicts one can say he did not appreciate that even greater changes such as the crucial dominance of the tank on the field and the airplane. These have subsequently rendered large scale mobile attacks across country viable and highly effective breaking the stalemate of the 1st World war. His lack of such prophetic insight cannot be seriously attacked although his emphasis on the constantly changing nature of warfare in his time can be said to indicate that this should be the case. Yet one is left to look at his prediction:
“The war of the future, the war which has become impossible…is the war in which great nations armed to the teeth…fling themselves with all resources into a struggle for life and death.”
It was Rudyard Kipling
who foresaw what it would actually take for this to happen. Not as Bloch saw it social and economic chaos coupled with huge losses but the production of a weapon that could kill at least 50% of participants with ease at a time. The nuclear bomb
is effectively that remedy that keeps the main western powers out of such a conflict with each other not the actual results of the 1st World war. On this point Bloch was proved wrong by the 2nd World War. But for all these considerations in the context of his time Bloch painted a remarkably accurate picture of how the next great war would be fought.