Is war now impossible?

Thursday, October 13th, 2011

Ivan Bloch was one of the prophets of the Great War — he saw that the new technology of warfare would lead to an economically draining stalemate — but he didn’t understand his Cassandra-like situation and declared that war would now be impossible:

“But how impossible, M. Bloch? Do you mean morally impossible?”

“No such thing,” he replied. “I am dealing not with moral considerations, which cannot be measured, but with hard, matter-of-fact, material things, which can be estimated and measured with some approximation to absolute accuracy. I maintain that war has become impossible alike from a military, economic, and political point of view. The very development that has taken place in the mechanism of war has rendered war an impracticable operation. The dimensions of modern armaments and the organisation of society have rendered its prosecution an economic impossibility, and, finally, if any attempt were made to demonstrate the inaccuracy of my assertions by putting the matter to a test on a great scale, we should find the inevitable result in a catastrophe which would destroy all existing political organisations. Thus, the great war cannot be made, and any attempt to make it would result in suicide. Such, I believe, is the simple demonstrable fact.”

“But where is the demonstration?” I asked.

M. Bloch turned and pointed to his encyclopaedic work upon “The Future of War,” six solid volumes, each containing I do not know how many quarto pages, which stood piled one above the other.

“Read that,” he said. “In that book you will find the facts upon which my demonstration rests.”

He makes the mistake of assuming that his thorough analysis will influence heads of state, but his tactical analysis does provide a solid first-order approximation of how a war would play out with modern technology, like magazine rifles:

“It is very simple,” said M. Bloch. “The outward and visible sign of the end of war was the introduction of the magazine rifle. For several hundred years after the discovery of gunpowder the construction of firearms made little progress. The cannon with which you fought at Trafalgar differed comparatively little from those which you used against the Armada. For two centuries you were content to clap some powder behind a round ball in an iron tube, and fire it at your enemy.

“The introduction of the needle gun and of breechloading cannon may be said to mark the dawn of the new era, which, however, was not definitely established amongst us until the invention of the magazine rifle of very small calibre. The magazine gun may also be mentioned as an illustration of the improved deadliness of firearms; but, as your experience at Obdurman showed, the deciding factor was not the Maxim, but the magazine rifle.”

“Yes,” I said; “as Lord Wolseley said, it was the magazine rifle which played like a deadly hose spouting leaden bullets upon the advancing enemy.”

“Yes,” said M. Bloch, “and the possibility of firing half a dozen bullets without having to stop to reload has transformed the conditions of modern war.”

“Do you not exaggerate the importance of mere rapidity of fire?” I asked.

“No,” said M. Bloch; “rapidity of fire does not stand alone. The modern rifle is not only a much more rapid firer than its predecessors, but it has also an immensely wider range and far greater precision of fire. To these three qualities must be added yet a fourth, which completes the revolutionary nature of the new firearm, and that is the introduction of smokeless powder.”

“The Spanish-American campaign,” I said, “illustrated the importance of smokeless powder; but how do you think the smokelessness of the new explosives will affect warfare in the future?”

“In the first case,” said M. Bloch, ” it demolishes the screen behind which for the last 400 years human beings have fought and died. All the last great battles have been fought more or less in the dark. After the battle is joined, friends and foes have been more or less lost to sight in the clouds of dense smoke which hung heavy over the whole battlefield. Now armies will no longer fight in the dark. Every soldier in the fighting line will see with frightful distinctness the havoc which is being made in the ranks by the shot and shell of the enemy. The veil which gunpowder spread over the worst horrors of the battlefield has been withdrawn for ever. But that is not the only change. It is difficult to over-estimate the increased strain upon the nerve and morale of an army under action by the fact that men will fall killed and wounded without any visible or audible cause. In the old days the soldier saw the puff of smoke, heard the roar of the gun, and when the shell or shot ploughed its way through the ranks, he associated cause and effect, and was to a certain extent prepared for it. In the warfare of the future men will simply fall and die without either seeing or hearing anything.”

“Without hearing anything, M. Bloch?”

“Without hearing anything, for although the smokeless powder is not noiseless, experience has proved that the report of a rifle will not carry more than nine hundred yards, and volley-firing cannot be heard beyond a mile. But that brings us to the question of the increased range of the new projectiles. An army on march will suddenly become aware of the comparative proximity of the foe by seeing men drop killed and wounded, without any visible cause; and only after some time will they be able to discover that the invisible shafts of death were sped from a line of sharp-shooters lying invisible at a distance of a mile or more. There will be nothing along the whole line of the horizon to show from whence the deathdealing missiles have sped. It will simply be as if the bolt had come from the blue. Can you conceive of anything more trying to human nerves?”

“But what is the range of the modern rifle?”

“The modern rifle,” said M. Bloch, “has a range of 3000 or 4000 metres—that is to say, from two to three miles. Of course, I do not mean to say that it will be used at such great distances. For action at long range, artillery is much more effective. But of that I will speak shortly. But you can fairly say that for one mile or a mile and a half the magazine rifle is safe to kill anything that stands between the muzzle and its mark; and therein,” continued M. Bloch, “lies one of the greatest changes that have been effected in modern firearms. Just look at this diagram” (see page i). “It will explain better than anything I can say the change that has been brought about in the last dozen years.

“In the last great war, if you wished to hit a distant mark, you had to sight your rifle so as to fire high up into the air, and the ball executing a curve descended at the range at which you calculated your target stood. Between the muzzle and the target your bullet did no execution. It was soaring in the air, first rising until it reached the maximum height, and then descending it struck the target or the earth at one definite point some thousand yards distant. Contrast this with the modern weapon. There is now no need for sighting your gun so as to drop your bullet at a particular range. You aim straight at your man, and the bullet goes, as is shown in the diagram, direct to its mark. There is no climbing into the air to fall again. It simply speeds, say, five feet from the earth until it meets its mark. Anything that stands between its object and the muzzle of the rifle it passes through. Hence whereas in the old gun you hit your man only if you could drop your bullet upon the square yard of ground upon which he was standing, you now hit him so long as you train your rifle correctly on every square yard of the thousand or two thousand which may intervene between the muzzle of your gun and the end of the course of the shot. That circumstance alone, even without any increase in the rapidity of the fire, must enormously add to the deadliness of the modern firearms.”

He obviously overestimates the importance of a rifle-bullet’s ballistics in its effective accuracy. Even trained snipers with high-power optics have trouble hitting a man-sized target at 1000 meters.

“Could you give me any exact statistics as to the increased rapidity of fire?”

“Certainly,” said M. Bloch. “That is to say, I can give you particulars up to a comparatively recent time, but the progress of the science of firearms is so rapid that no one can say but that my statistics may be old before you print your report of this talk. The ordinary soldier will fire twelve times as many shots per minute as he was able to do in 1870, and even this is likely to be rapidly improved upon. But you may take it that what with increased rapidity of fire, greater penetrative power, and the greater precision that the gun which the soldier will carry into the battle will possess, the rifle of to-morrow will be forty times as effective as the chassepot was in the Franco-Prussian war. Even the present gun is five times as deadly.”

“But do not you think that with this rapid firing a soldier will spend all his ammunition and have none left?”

“There, again,” said M. Bloch, “the improvement in firearms has enormously increased the number of cartridges which each man can carry into action. In 1877, when we went to war with Turkey, our soldiers could only carry 84 cartridges into action. When the calibre of the rifle was reduced to 5 mm. the number which each soldier was furnished with rose to 270. With a bullet of 4 mm. he will carry 380, and when we have a rifle of 3 mm. calibre he will be able to take 57s into action, and not have to carry any more weight than that which burdened him when he carried 84, twenty years ago. At present he carries 170 of the 7-62 mm.”

“But we are a long way off 3 mm. calibre, are we not, M. Bloch?”

Indeed, we are a long way off from 3 mm rounds. It took two World Wars and a few smaller ones before the Americans led the way down to a glorified .22 — in part because smaller rounds don’t behave as predicted by such a simple analysis. They are lighter though.

“Not so far. It is true that very many countries have not yet adopted so small a bore. Your country, for instance, has between “7.5 and 8 mm. The United States have adopted one with 6; Germany is contemplating the adoption of 5; but the 3 mm. gun will probably be the gun of the future, for the increased impetus of the small bore and its advantage in lightness will compel its adoption.”

“You speak of the increased penetrative power of the bullet. Do you think this will add considerably to the deadliness of rifle-fire?”

“Oh, immensely,” said M. Bloch. “As you contract the calibre of the gun you increase the force of its projectile. For instance, a rifle with a calibre of only 6.5 mm. has 44 per cent. more penetrative power than the shot fired by an 8 mm. rifle. Then, again, in previous wars, if a man could throw himself behind a tree he felt comparatively safe, even although the bullets were hurtling all round. To-day the modern bullet will pierce a tree without any difficulty. It also finds no obstacle in earthworks such as would have turned aside the larger bullets. There is therefore less shelter, and not only is there less shelter, but the excessive rapidity with which the missile travels (for it is absurd to call the slender projectile, no thicker than a lead pencil, a ball) will add enormously to the destructive power of the shot. Usually when a bullet struck a man, it found its billet, and generally stopped where it entered; but with the new bullet this will not be the case. At a near range it will pass through successive files of infantry, but what is more serious is that should it strike a bone, it is apt to fly upwards or sideways, rending and tearing everything through which it passes. The mortality will be much greater from this source than it has been in the past.”

“But is this not all very much theory? Have you any facts in support of your belief that the modern bullet will be so much more deadly than its predecessor? In England quite the opposite impression prevailed, owing to the experience which we gained in Jameson’s raid, when many of the combatants were shot through and seemed none the worse, even although the bullet appeared to have traversed a vital part of the body.”

M. Bloch replied: “I do not know about the Jameson raid. I do know what happened when the soldiers fired recently upon a crowd of riotous miners. It is true that they fired at short range, not more than thirty to eighty paces. The mob also was not advancing in loose formation, but, like most mobs, was densely packed. Only ten shots were fired, but these ten shots killed outright seven of the men and wounded twenty-five, of whom six afterwards died. Others who were slightly wounded concealed their injuries, fearing prosecution. Each shot, therefore, it is fair to estimate, must have hit at least four persons. But ignoring those unreported cases, there were thirty-two persons struck by bullets. Of these, thirteen died, a proportion of nearly 40 per cent., which is at least double the average mortality of persons hit by rifle-bullets in previous wars. It has also been proved by experiments made by firing shots into carcases and corpses, that when the bullet strikes a bone it acts virtually as an explosive bullet, as the point expands and issues in a kind of mushroom shape. Altogether I take a very serious view of the sufferings,” continued M. Bloch, “and of the injury that will be inflicted by the new weapons.”

As the interviewer mentions, the newer, small, high-velocity rounds — like the 7 mm Mauser used by the Spanish in the Spanish-American War — left a small clean hole, which may explain why armies weren’t quick to adopt even smaller, faster rounds.


  1. Goober says:

    Wow. This guy has absolutely no idea what he’s talking about. A mile? Give me a break. Only the very best and most elite can fire their rifles accurately to a half a mile, much less a mile. As for his clap-trap knowledge on ballistics, I’ll let that speak for itself. If he really is advocating firing a rifle at distances of a mile, you’d be lobbing that bullet in to your target big time. Almost indirect fire. I know that I have to aim about 12 feet over my target to hit the gong at 1,000 yards when I shoot in competition. A mile is 1,760 yards. I don’t have the calcs directly in front of me, but a round about guess: about 30 feet high, give or take. The round isn’t “5 feet off the ground the whole way” like this guy says. He has absolutely no idea what he is even talking about.

  2. Goober says:

    As for his 44% more penetration between a 6.5 and 8mm round, again, he has no clue what he is talking about. It depends totally on the cartridge, not just the caliber. An 8mm magnum round will do immensly more damage than a small, assault style 6.5 millimeter round. Likewise, a 6.5 mm assault round will do immensly more damage than a 9mm parabellum. This guy is literally talking out his arse.

  3. Doctor Pat says:

    His knowledge of firearms is terrible, and yet, he was fundamentally correct in his overall thesis: a great war in the early 20th century would destroy all the empires of Europe.

    However, they were stupid enough to do it anyway. That was the other flaw in his thinking.

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