One hundred and sixteen times more deadly

Friday, October 14th, 2011

By the dawn of the 20th century, Ivan Bloch had deemed war impossible because of the increased lethality of small-arms and artillery:

“Is the improvement in the deadliness of weapons confined to small-arms? Does it equally extend to artillery firing?”

“There,” said M. Bloch, “you touch upon a subject which I have dealt with at much length in my book. The fact is that if the rifle has improved, artillery has much more improved. Even before the quick-firing gun was introduced into the field batteries an enormous improvement had been made. So, indeed, you can form some estimate of the evolution of the cannon when I say that the French artillery to-day is held by competent authorities to be at least one hundred and sixteen times more deadly than the batteries which went into action in 1870.”

“How can that be ?” I asked. “They do not fire one hundred and sixteen times as fast, I presume?”

“No; the increased improvement has been obtained in many ways. By the use of range-finders it is possible now to avoid much firing into space which formerly prevailed. An instrument weighing about 60 lb. will in three minutes give the range of any distance up to four miles, and even more rapid range-finders are being constructed. Then, remember, higher explosives are used; the range has been increased, and even before quick-firing guns were introduced it was possible to fire two and a half times as fast as they did previously. The effect of artillery-fire to-day is at least five times as deadly as it was, and being two or three times as fast, you may reckon that a battery of artillery is from twelve to fifteen times as potent an instrument of destruction as it was thirty years ago. Even in 1870 the German artillerists held that one battery was able absolutely to annihilate any force advancing along a line of fire estimated at fifteen paces in breadth for a distance of over four miles.

“If that was so then, you can imagine how much more deadly it is now, when the range is increased and the explosive power of the shell has been enormously developed. It is estimated that if a body of 10,000 men, advancing to the attack, had to traverse a distance of a mile and a half under the fire of a single battery, they would be exposed to 1450 rounds before they crossed the zone of fire, and the bursting of the shells fired by that battery would scatter 275,000 bullets in fragments over the mile and a half across which they would have to march. In 1870 an ordinary shell when it burst broke into from nineteen to thirty pieces. To-day it bursts into 240. Shrapnel fire in 1870 only scattered thirty-seven deathdealing missiles. Now it scatters 340. A bomb weighing about 70 lb. thirty years ago would have burst into fortytwo fragments. To-day, when it is charged with peroxilene, it breaks up into 1200 pieces, each of which is hurled with much greater velocity than the larger lumps which were scattered by a gunpowder explosion. It is estimated that such a bomb would effectively destroy all life within a range of 200 metres of the point of explosion. The artillery also benefits by the smokeless powder, although, as you can easily imagine, it is not without its drawbacks.”

“What drawbacks?”

“The fact that the artillerymen can be much more easily picked off, when they are serving their guns, by sharp-shooters than was possible when they were enveloped in a cloud of smoke of their own creation. It is calculated that one hundred sharp-shooters, who would be quite invisible at a range of five hundred yards, would put a battery out of action in four minutes if they could get within range of one thousand yards. At a mile’s range it might take one hundred men half an hour’s shooting to put a battery out of action. The most effective range for the sharp-shooter is about eight hundred paces. At this range, while concealed behind a bush or improvised earthwork, a good shot could pick off the men of any battery, or the officers, who could not avail themselves of the cover to which their men resort.”

“How will your modern battle begin, M. Bloch?”

“Probably with attempts on outposts made by sharpshooters to feel and get into touch with each other. Cavalry will not be of much use for that purpose. A mounted man offers too good a mark to a sharp-shooter. Then when the outposts have felt each other sufficiently to give the opposing armies knowledge of the whereabouts of their antagonists, the artillery duel will commence at a range of from four to five miles. As long as the artillery is in action it will be quite sufficient to render the nearer approach of the opposing forces impossible. If they are evenly matched, they will mutually destroy each other, after inflicting immense losses before they are put out of action. Then the turn of the rifle will come. But the power of rifle-fire is so great that it will be absolutely impossible for the combatants to get to close quarters with each other. As for any advance in force, even in the loosest of formations, on a front that is swept by the enemies’ fire, that is absolutely out of the question. Flank movements may be attempted, but the increased power which a magazine rifle gives to the defence will render it impossible for such movements to have the success that they formerly had. A small company can hold its own against a superior attacking force long enough to permit of the bringing up of reinforcements. To attack any position successfully, it is estimated that the attacking force ought to outnumber the assailants at least by 8 to i. It is calculated that 100 men in a trench would be able to put out of action 336 out of 400 who attacked them, while they were crossing a fire-zone only 300 yards wide.”


  1. Michael Gersh says:

    In 1898 Hilaire Belloc famously said, “Whatever happens, we have got The Maxim gun, and they have not.”

    Worked to colonize Africa, but in France a decade or two later, not so much. Apparently Ivan Bloch underestimated the willingness of European commanders to sacrifice the troops under their command.

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