T. H. Wintringham

Modern Weapons and Warfare

Source: Labour Monthly, August 1932, Vol. XIV, No. 8, pp. 497-504
Transcription: Phyll Smith
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
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MILITARY technique has developed at a more rapid rate during the past four years than during the four years of the first Great War. But the political conclusions to be drawn from this development are not those usually expressed. This development does not automatically strengthen imperialism. In the struggle against the working class revolution, against the nationalist revolts in colonial or semi-colonial countries, and against Soviet Russia, the imperialists’ development of scientific machinery for warfare makes it easier for them to start a war with hopes of success—but not easier to win such a war. The commencement of such a war becomes a matter of confident (but unfounded) optimism, as at Shanghai; it is also easier for the imperialists, if they so desire, to postpone the actual outbreak of a nationalist revolt, as in India, by a show of overwhelming force. But when the test comes—whether of armoured cars in Peshawar or of tanks in Chapei—the results are not in accord with the expectations of the imperialist Staffs.

When carried beyond a certain point each development of military technique makes the imperialist state weaker as against the enemies stated. This may seem, at first sight, absurd; surely a new and better weapon strengthens the fighting power of the man who holds it? Certainly it does, we can answer; but who holds this weapon? And does the weapon need, for its use, the obedient service of many other men, some of them outside the armed forces altogether? New weapons must be judged by two standards their effect on the process of class differentiation within the armed force in question, and their effect on the dependence of this armed force on the products of a skilled working class. For in the next (or the present) war the decisive factor will be not the potential killing-power but the actual will-power, solidarity and endurance of the opposing forces.

The statement that military technique is developing now more rapidly than under the pressure of war may seem difficult to believe. Advances in technique cannot of course be measured arithmetically. But some of their results can be.

To take first the most modern weapon, the aeroplane. Colonel Seeley stated in Parliament early in 1914 that the average speed of the aeroplanes then in use for military purposes was 65 miles per hour. At the end of 1918 three of the most advanced machines in mass production, the D.H. 9a, the Sopwith “Camel” and the Bristol “Fighter,” averaged 125 m.p.h. If the slower long-range bombers were added the average would be lower (the F.E. 2b, capable of 90 m.p.h. if pressed was still in service). But we can take it that the development of technique had added 60 m.p.h. to the fighting speed.

In 1928 there were many types in use in the R.A.F. Five may be taken as typical of all except the slow-bomber. Their speeds were: Fairey III. F, 135 m.p.h.; Westland “Wapiti,” 140 m.p.h.; Armstrong-Whitworth “Atlas,” 150 m.p.h.; Fairey “Fox,” 160 m.p.h.; Bristol “Bulldog,” 165 m.p.h.—an average of about 150 m.p.h.

Now for every purpose except long-range bombing, these machines have been replaced as standard by a single type: the Hawker-Rolls Royce machine, known in its various forms as the “Fury” fighter, “Hart” (day bomber), “Audax” (army co-operation), “Nimrod” (fleet fighter), and “Osprey” (fleet reconnaissance). These machines move at 190 to 210 m.p.h.

It will be seen that these four years have only added some 50 m.p.h. to the standard speed. But to add this on to 150 m.p.h. is a much bigger technical achievement than adding 60 on to 65 m.p.h., because the resistance to motion does not increase in proportion to the air speed, but in proportion to the square of that speed.

The weight of bombs that can be carried, and the range and speed of the heavy bombers, show a more rapid increase recently than was the case in war time, though the new machines (Handley-Page, Fairey and Blackburn) are not yet in production on a large scale.

Another example of modern development is seen in the speed of movement of a self-contained battalion of infantry. The mobility of infantry remained at a fixed level for more than two thousand years; only picked troops could equal the marching power of the Roman legions. Then came the development of railways and later of road transport. Railways do not give true mobility, the power to move in any direction; nor do they give the mobility during actual battle that is the vital factor. When they have to be built, as in the Egypt-Palestine campaign, progress is limited to a few miles a day. Road and cross-country transport, on the other hand, gives true mobility. The strategic importance of this form of transport was underlined early in the war, when General Gallieni’s taxi-cabs took troops from the Paris area to Von Kluck’s flank, during the criticial stage of the battle of the Marne. Its tactical importance was made clear at Cambrai and in the final battles of the War.

This form of transport did not reach full development during the War. It is only since the War that we have seen self-contained units of all arms swung across the map by petrol. And this year the pace of movement for an infantry battalion, the slowest unit of a “mechanised” brigade, was raised at one bound from 15 m.p.h. to 20 m.p.h.

In the same way the speed of movement of field artillery has been raised from that of the horse-drawn battery, not much faster than Wellington’s guns, to that of the “dragon” tractor, capable of 20 m.p.h. or more.

All Territorial brigades of artillery are being completely mechanised during 1932. Mechanisation of this force with six-wheeled tractors began in 1931, and was intended to have spread over three years; this has now been speeded up and all 220 batteries will have tractors within six months from now. The Army Service Corps and field ambulance units of the Territorial Army have also been mechanised.

In these ways a mobile mechanised force is being prepared. Speed, of course, is not everything: but the fire-power of a division has increased with its mobility. This has occurred mainly through the development of the machine gun as the dominant weapon of the army.

Figures are not available for the exact number of machine guns allotted to a British division now and progress is so rapid that they would probably be out of date if available. But it is known that in 1913 a United States division of infantry had 24 machine guns, capable firing 12,000 shots per minute maximum. In 1930 such a division had 947 machine guns, capable of over 470,000 shots per minute. The maximum potential fire-power of the division (including rifles but excluding artillery) had thus increased by 200 per cent.

Each British battalion has now a machine gun company consisting of machine gun platoons and a light mortar platoon. In addition, there are brigade machine guns, divisional machine guns and light mortars, and the machine guns of the armoured vehicles attached to each division.

From the time of Agincourt until the latter half of the Great War the dominant weapon in warfare could be handled by a single man, and that man could carry in battle all the munitions required in a day’s fighting. This weapon—bow, musket, rifle—needed little mechanical skill in handling or maintenance. And even modern rifles could be produced, in 1914, by workshops without a high level of technique; rifles were made in Persia, Afghanistan and China.

From 1916 the machine gun began, on the Western Front, to replace the rifle as the dominant weapon. (By dominant weapon is meant the principal creator of casualties and principal instrument in imposing the will of one force on another, which is mainly but not entirely done by creating casualties). The machine gun needs considerable mechanical skill in handling and maintenance. It can only be produced by machine tools working to fine limits. It needs the co-operation of several men in a day’s fighting, and to maintain full effective use for a day may need four to ten times more ammunition than its crew can themselves carry in attack.

The fighting round Chapei has shown that the machine gun maintains, or even has increased, its predominance. Chinese machine-gunners were able to maintain themselves in the Woosung forts against attack by all weapons, as the German machine-gunners held the ground at Paschendade. The Japanese tanks and bombers failed to defeat snipers in the city and machine-gunners in the rice-fields.

The dependence of the machine gun on a continual flow of amunitunition, its need for skilled handling and maintenance (even if the gun gets these, the life of a machine gun unit in battle is usually described as “all jam”), its dependence on the micrometer-gauge and first-class metallurgy in manufacture, make this weapon typical of modern technical advance. But it is, of course, not nearly so complicated a piece of engineering as the aeroplane engine, or so dependent on supplies as a tank.

An aeroplane in the air is, for a number of hours, a self-contained military unit. But an aeroplane squadron with its workshops and equipment is a very complex economic group dependent on the steel and engineering industries throughout almost all their range, needing wireless parts, delicate instruments, chemicals (for special fuels, and “dope” for fabrics), benzol from coal, specially-made tyres, light metal alloys, and a dozen other things. If the supply of any of these is held up, the squadron is helpless.

The Navy during the War was so dependent on the highest grade of skill in the making of optical instruments that lenses were bought from Austrian firms (via Holland) for use in the range-finders of the Grand Fleet. Each development in technique spreads wider the net of interdependence, and makes more certain that any working class resistance to war will rapidly cripple the forces of imperialism.

This growing dependence on an uninterrupted flow of munitions, coming not from special workshops hut from almost every producing industry in the country, is the first great weakness of the imperialists’ modern methods of warfare. The second main weakness is the growth of class differentiation and occasions for conflicts within the armed forces.

One effect of the development of modern technique of warfare is that the competence of commanders in relation to the weapons employed decreases. (Appointment to high command for reasons of seniority and social influence will, of course, continue; the officer who plays polo will still advance over the head of the officer who “swots” metallurgy.)

At one stage in the war on the Soviet Union and on China, India, &c., this inability of the Command to handle its new weapons will be one of the biggest revolutionising factors at work among the troops. It affects officers as much as men, patriots as much as those with a different outlook. Just as members of the Russian nobility and capitalist class turned against Tsarism in March, 1917, for “patriotic” reasons, out of a desire to press forward with the war, so will officers of the next Expeditionary Force kick against cavalry generals, and Camberley staffs who think they are engineers because they can “tune” the engines of sports cars.

Another effect of modern technique is to create a reserve of skilled officers and men who are, in a period of capitalist crisis, without employment at an early age. In the Boer War period the “old soldier” was usually a good soldier. But an old aeroplane pilot is never a good one for fighting purposes. Therefore, a system of “short-service” commissions is employed in the Air Force; this turns young officers out into the search for civilian jobs at ages between 28 and 35. These young men, after years of unemployment or uncongenial employment, will return to their Force in war-time with enthusiasm. But their experiences will have left a mark, and as the enthusiasm wanes they will be able to realise from their own lives the emptiness of patriotic propaganda.

In other modern technical corps there are either similar short-service schemes or there is a system of gradual “superannuation” for those who are not promoted after certain periods of service.

The number of R.A.F. pilots who are not officers has recently been increased; a sergeant beat two officers in the display of individual aerobatics at the Hendon Display last month. Developments of this sort lead to a wide disparity in pay and privileges between the ordinary “other ranks” and those who have been lucky enough to pass the tests— physical and social—and become pilots.

It was a grievance among the infantry in the War that they were getting a shilling a day for fighting, while a first-class air mechanic far behind the lines got 4s. a day. This differentiation is increased by each advance in technique, and its effect on fighting efficiency will be seen when the pinch comes.

The physical and mental strain imposed by the new weapons must also be noted. The war strain in a tank or submarine rapidly creates crippling neuroses or otherwise destroys health. War used to be a slow, toilsome pursuit rather like agriculture; now it is a “speeded-up” industry run at a killing pace. Each individual needs reserves of physical and mental strength to stick it. As capitalist society divides more and more into a class rotted by leisure and luxury and a class embittered by poverty and hunger, the imperialist forces will not find it possible to retain the morale needed.

This is also affected by the fact that the “lumpen-proletariat” and the agricultural workers are no longer the main source for recruits. A better-educated, mechanically adaptable type is needed to handle aircraft, vehicles and machine guns. This type is mainly drawn from the industrial proletariat, and particularly from young workers in the engineering trades. The background of the youngsters in the forces now is no longer the farm or the fish-and-chip trade: it is the unemployment exchange, the Bedaux system, the parents out of work, and the chained slavery of the moving “conveyor.”

One further effect of modern technique which may seem trivial, but is of great importance, must be mentioned. The “craftsman” in the forces cannot be treated for disciplinary purposes in the same way as the expert rifleman. Wireless is being developed enormously; most tanks and aircraft are fitted with it, and even machine-gun units are often controlled by portable wireless. The wireless operator or mechanic cannot be given “fatigues” implying any heavy manual work; these would spoil his fineness of touch when handling small parts and tools and sending keys. Thus the “disciplinary” sergeant-major is prevented from employing his normal minor bullyings, in the case of a few men in each unit: which only shows up their irritating absurdity the more when they are employed on others.

It is difficult to inflict any punishment except stoppage of pay on a skilled mechanic whose services are urgently needed. In an Air Force squadron a “rigger” may be confined to the guard room on a serious charge. A machine crashes in landing; it must be repaired. The rigger is at once told to “hop it and get on with the job.” Each development of specialisation makes more difficult, in this way, the maintenance of arbitrary discipline. And arbitrary discipline is the only sort that can exist in a capitalist force.

These factors increasing class differentiation in the forces will only, of course, be supplementary to the general effect of the capitalist crisis on the working class and petty bourgeoisie, from which the ranks and nine-tenths of the officers are drawn.

There is also a general contradiction in the development of modern warfare; each improvement in technique, within the limits of expenditure which imperialism can afford, makes the imperialist forces less capable of carrying out a fundamental maxim of war: “combine the strategical offensive with the tactical defensive.”

The more highly mechanised and technically developed a force is, the smaller is the percentage of its men that it can put in the firing line, the more sensitive are its lines of communications, and the greater are its difficulties in occupying territory if the population are hostile, possess some arms, and are determined to fight.

The combination of the strategical offensive with the tactical defensive has become more important with the development of the machine gun, not less important; this weapon when stationary (and almost invisible) in defence, with its supplies to hand, is immensely more difficult to destroy than when it is carried forward in attack—even when carried at speed and protected by armour—with its supplies, petrol, &c., stretching out over the battlefields behind it. Tactically, for this reason, the defence—as at Chapei—has great advantages over the attack.

Therefore the aim in warfare, now more than ever, is to move forces into such positions that the opposing forces are compelled to shatter themselves in futile attacks. The campaign of Sedan is the typical example of this strategy; it was the Germans who advanced, the French who had to attack. But the whole of modern technical development is an attempt to produce an attacking force able to advance at speed against a determined defence. The large army, able to occupy territory effectively and advance over a wide front, and to dispose of its defensive lines in depth, is unequivocally condemned; the small mobile high-efficiency striking force is the modern Staff’s aim.

Modern Formations, a text book issued last year by the British General Staff, lays down that “in the open country, tanks will be the principal arm; in enclosed country, infantry—but an infantry that has radically changed its form.”

This “radical change” is the equipment of infantry with vehicles for transport, their arming with machine guns, &c.

This text-book states optimistically that “the doom of large armies is trebly sealed by the aeroplane, the tank and the possibility of meeting gas.”

This text-book is the considered opinion of the new Army Council, the membership of which was changed after the successful development of a completely mechanised force during the experiments on Salisbury Plain. (Out of this governing body of the Army only one member remained the others were replaced by officers who had played some part in the development of mechanisation.)

It will be remembered by readers of Winston Churchill’s World Crisis that there existed in 1914 another Army Council who believed that the fighting power of reservists was not important, that only the “active army” mattered, and “believed ardently that victory could be compelled from the first moment by a vehement and furious rush upon the foe.” This was the French War Council; its plans were responsible for the French disasters of the first three months of 1914, when the French attacks—“hopeless onslaughts delivered to the strains of the ‘Marseillaise’”—were “hurled back with a slaughter so frightful that it has never yet been comprehended by the world.”

The British reliance on technical equipment for a “vehement and furious rush” is no less mystical and unreal now than was the French reliance on “the offensive spirit” in 1914. Those who are planning to use “tanks as the principal arm” over the six hundred miles that separate Bialystock and Moscow, and the thousand miles between Harbin and Lake Baikal, may feel scornful of the possibilities of opposition. But since their vital lines of communication will be unsafe from the front line to the home factory (and beyond), and since their opponents will show a deplorable inability to realise that the doom of large armies and armed populations is “trebly sealed,” their successes may not be so great as they imagine. Pyrrhus, Hannibal, Varus, and Napoleon (in Spain) are remembered for campaigns in which they were technically “invincible,” and did in fact win victories—but lost the war.

This view of the inevitable outcome of imperialist war on the Soviet Union does not, of course, lead to an attitude of placid and inactive optimism among those whose aim is the ending of imperialism and there fore of war. Since a principal weakness of imperialist war technique is its dependence on the factory, the struggle for organisation and militant leadership in the factory is a vital front in the struggle against the imperialist war-makers. And since another principal weakness is the immense growth of, and increase in the occasions for, class friction within the armed forces, those who are opposed to imperialism will help to ensure that these forces “see the world”—as it is.

Those who advocate a “pacifist technique of revolution” (without explaining how this differs from their usual technique of keeping the working class impotent), point to modern weapons of warfare as making a real revolution impossible.

The weaknesses of imperialist weapons noted above are easier to see when we think of these weapons as turned against men and women of the same nationality as those who work them and work on them. Full treatment of this question requires a separate article. But the main point is clear: this war technique is only strong in so far as it creates fear among the workers, and in so far as the forces are separate from the workers. The I.L.P. is helping the imperialists by keeping alive the legend of their invincibility and by distracting attention from the need for contact between the militant working class and the working class in uniform.