The Land Ironclads

Saturday, August 22nd, 2009

H.G. Wells’ The Land Ironclads famously predicted the modern tank — in 1903, well before the first tank saw combat in 1916 — but it also predicted trench warfare and stormtrooper tactics:

The young lieutenant lay beside the war correspondent and admired the idyllic calm of the enemy’s lines through his fieldglass.

‘So far as I can see,’ he said at last, ‘one man.’

‘What’s he doing?’ asked the war correspondent.

‘Field-glass at us,’ said the young lieutenant.

‘And this is war?’

‘No,’ said the young lieutenant, ‘it’s Bloch.’

‘The game’s a draw.’

‘No! They’ve got to win or else they lose. A draw’s a win for our side.’
They had been there a month. Since the first brisk movements after the declaration of war things had gone slower and slower, until it seemed as though the whole machine of events must have run down. To begin with, they had had almost a scampering time; the invader had come across the frontier on the very dawn of the war in half-a-dozen parallel columns behind a cloud of cyclists and cavalry, with a general air of coming straight on the capital, and the defender horsemen had held him up, and peppered him and forced him to open out, to outflank, and had then bolted to the next position in the most approved style, for a couple of days, until in the afternoon, bump! they had the invader against their prepared lines of defence.

He did not suffer so much as had been hoped and expected: he was coming on, it seemed, with his eyes open, his scouts winded the guns, and down he sat at once without the shadow of an attack and began grubbing trenches for himself, as though he meant to sit down there to the very end of time. He was slow, but much more wary than the world had been led to expect, and he kept convoys tucked in and shielded his slow-marching infantry sufficiently well to prevent any heavy adverse scoring.

‘But he ought to attack,’ the young lieutenant had insisted.

‘He’ll attack us at dawn, somewhere along the lines. You’ll get the bayonets coming into the trenches just about when you can see,’ the war correspondent had held until a week ago.

The young lieutenant winked when he said that.

When one early morning the men the defenders sent to lie out five hundred yards before the trenches, with a view to the unexpected emptying of magazines into any night attack, gave way to causeless panic and blazed away at nothing for ten minutes, the war correspondent understood the meaning of that wink.

‘What would you do if you were the enemy?’ said the war correspondent, suddenly.

‘If I had men like I’ve got now?’


‘Take those trenches.’


‘Oh — dodges! Crawl out half-way at night before moon-rise, and get into touch with the chaps we send out. Blaze at ‘em if they tried to shift, and so bag some of ‘em in the daylight. Learn that patch of ground by heart, lie all day in squatty holes, and come on nearer next night. There’s a bit over there, lumpy ground, where they could get across to rushing distance — easy.

In a night or so. It would be a mere game for our fellows; it’s what they’re made for…. Guns? Shrapnel and stuff wouldn’t stop good men who meant business.’

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