'Man & the Killing Machine': A Study of Military Leadership & Weaponry Technology

Tactics- definition
The ideas used by military commanders to move troops in such a manner as to achieve an advantage and to win an engagement with the enemy.
Tactics include elements such as troop concentration, mobility and surprise.
There are two general schools of tactics involved in infantry warfare:
  • Offensive or assault &
  • Defensive

Structure of an Army

At the beginning of the period being studied i.e. 1796, armies were divided into four separate corps:
  • Infantry
  • Cavalry
  • Artillery
  • Logistics
Little has changed since then except that the horse-mounted cavalry have metamorphosed into Tank units.

Napoleonic Wars 1796-1815
Napoleon Bonaparte’s aim was to conquer Europe and destroy the power of the region’s other great nations -Great Britain, Austria, Prussia and Russia. These countries had been more or less continuously at war with France since 1790 when their rulers feared that the radical ideals of the recent French Revolution would lead to popular uprisings against their own aristocratic regimes.
Napoleon was an outstanding strategist and an extraordinary tactician. He fought a series of brilliant campaigns against the Austrians, the Prussians and the Russians. However he failed to invade Britain because of the strength of the Royal Navy.

Weapons & Tactics: Overview
The queen of the European battlefield during this era was artillery which was responsible for over 50% of all casualties.

Cavalry were used to break through to the rear of the enemy’s armies. This was achieved by having the horse soldiers used directly as shock troops to overwhelm an enemy’s front or to pour through and exploit an opening in the line created by an infantry attack.

The main infantry tactic employed in the Napoleonic Wars was the ‘Massed Column’ attack. This consisted of 20-40 men wide and 25-30 ranks deep which moved forward towards the enemy lines.

The main weapon of Cavalry throughout the Napoleonic war was the Sabre. There were dozens of sabre types used throughout the Napoleonic Wars.

The British had two styles of sabre:
1796 pattern light cavalry sabre 1796 heavy cavalry sabre

The British used their sabres to slash, whereas the French used the weapons’ points to skewer and impale the enemy. These tactics continued to be used right up to and into World War One.

The other main weapon used by cavalry was the Lance. This was usually a 240-centimetre shaft with a 30 centimetre point on the end of it.
The main protagonists of the lance were the Poles, the Austrians and the Russian Cossacks.

Napoleon’s lancers were excellent for pursuing the fleeing infantry of the enemy.

Artillery was the most effective killer of men on the Napoleonic battlefield.
Artillery batteries had a limited choice of ammunition with which to kill the enemy:
  • Roundshot (canon ball)
  • Canisters
  • Shell
The number of men needed to fire an artillery gun varied from five to twelve.
The maximum range for the largest cannon (12 pounders) was over 800 yards.

The Infantry’s main weapon in this era was a hand loaded smooth-bore musket.
Powder, ball and paper were rammed down the barrel by the user. A trained soldier could only fire up to three volleys a minute with accuracy only as good as 100 yards.
Slow rates of loading gave an advantage to the attacker.

The rifle was much more accurate than a musket. The rifled barrels of rifles spun the ball so that it kept its accuracy over a far greater distance. In the arms of an expert, a rifle could hit a target at up to three times the range of a musket.
But rifles took longer to load which meant that many commanders like Napoleon preferred the musket.

Other weapons of the foot soldiers included:
* Bayonet - a dagger-like weapon attached to the end of an infantryman’s musket.

Though not really responsible for many casualties, a bayonet charge by soldier oftentimes was a highly successful tactic as it caused many an enemy infantry line to break and run.
* Sword – popular with officers.
* Pike - usually comprising a nine-foot long spear with a foot long blade at the end.

Infantry were drawn into ‘line and column’ formation. The purpose of battle was to advance with bayonet towards the enemy lines.

Crimean War 1854-1856
Decline in importance of Cavalry as Defence takes precedence

The primary cause of the Crimean War was Russian attempts to coerce the weakened Ottoman Empire (Turkey) into allowing it to obtain a secure outlet from the Black Sea into the Mediterranean Sea. This would have meant Russia dominating Constantinople and the Straits of Marmara. Tsar Nicholas of Russia also saw himself as the protector of the sacred Christian shrines in Palestine which lay within the Ottoman Empire. He moved troops into the Turkish provinces of Wallachia and Moldavia (modern Romania).
The British feared this growth of Russian power. Supported by France under Emperor Napoleon III, their armies successfully forced the Russians out of Wallachia and Moldavia by the end of the summer of 1854.
They then decided in September to send an Allied expeditionary force of 60,000 British, French and Turkish troops into the Crimea in order to occupy the great Russian naval base of Sevastopol. Loss of the latter would have destroyed Russian naval power in the Black Sea. However the Allies got bogged down in a messy siege of the port that lasted for another year.
Peace was concluded in 1856
The allied troops suffered from bad leadership, outdated tactics and inefficient logistical and medical support.

The Crimean War witnessed the footslogging infantry soldier become more important that the dashing cavalryman due to improvements in the range and firing speed of both artillery and small arms fire. The war is remembered best for the decimation of cavalry attacks such as the infamous 'Charge of the Light Brigade'.

Poor Generalship & Outmoded Tactics
Despite the improvements in weaponry, the generals and leaders on all sides fought the war as if nothing had really changed since the Napoleonic era. The equipment, uniforms and most importantly the tactics would have not looked out of place on a European battlefield of 40 years previously. Not surprising when you realise that the British were led by Lord Raglan who had last seen action at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815!
Russian Cannon captured in Crimea by the Connacht Rangers regiment of the British Army
& now located in the grounds of City Hall in Galway City

Effect of New Weapon Technology
But it was the Crimean campaign that saw the introduction of the rifled musket, the rifled and breech loading cannon and the trench system which gave added protection and the advantage to the defender while undermining the attacker especially if he was on horseback.
The tactic of a mass cavalry charge was outdated but still cherished by old-fashioned generals.
Hence, technological changes and out-dated tactics led to a very high casualty rate in the war with attacking armies being decimated by defending forces. Approximately 100,000 were killed in action or dead from their battle wounds.

American Civil War 1861-1865
Background: Slave Emancipation
The primary cause of the American Civil War was the issue of slave emancipation. The Southern states (‘Confederacy’) wished to continue with slavery as it provided their cotton-growing large farms or plantations with a cheap resource of farm workers. The more industrialised Northern states (‘Union’) such as New York and Massachusetts, relying on a more mobile paid workforce for their factories, wanted it abolished.

World’s First Modern War
The war has been called the world’s first modern war because it was the conflict that saw the introduction of ‘mass production’ factories of the Industrial Revolution that were able to supply, feed and cloth large armies of conscripted men. Machines replaced men in the factories allowing them to be available to be called up by governments as soldiers. The new railways allowed the rapid movement of huge armies and their materials over vast distances.
Furthermore, military communication was dramatically improved with the introduction of the telegraph system.

The two armies in the Civil War were broadly similar in the types of weapons used, namely rifles, revolvers, cannons and swords. The favourite artillery piece in both the Union and the Confederacy was the ‘Napoleon’ a twelve pounder “gun howitzer”.
Hand-held Guns
A major development occurred with the rifled musket. The French- invented ‘Miniecylindo-conoidal ball or bullet was so-called because it was essentially an elongated hollow cylinder with a cone-shaped head. It expanded when it was fired to catch in the rifling and be shot spinning out of the barrel. That spin made the Minie ball a highly precise and far travelling projectile. It could reach a half-mile. An average soldier could hit a target 250 yards away while the rate of fire was also improved.

Projectile replaces Knife
So-called ‘Edged’ weapons caused very few injuries during the American Civil War. Of the approximately 250,000 wounded treated in union hospitals during the war only 922 were the victims of sabres or bayonets.

Cavalry’s New Role
Cavalry were now of secondary value on the battlefield and were mainly used for scouting, screening infantry movement and long distant raiding. In fact the most innovative and effective use of cavalry in the Civil War was as ‘mobile shock infantry’. Here the soldiers would arrive at speed and relatively refreshed to a battle zone after travelling great distances. They would then dismount and fight on foot.

Defence in the Ascendancy
The increasing use of magazine-fed rifles increased their efficiency even more and led to greater rates of slaughter amongst the attacking forces if they advanced across open ground in the traditional ‘line and column’ formations of the Napoleonic era.
These technological advances gave much added firepower to the defender and changed the whole face of warfare. It meant the elimination of cavalry as an effective primary fighting force

The Generals: Slow LearnersMany generals on both sides still used frontal assaults as they blindly followed the tactics learnt in the officer military training such as Westpoint.
They failed to learn from the realities of the new type of war that they were involved in.
Hence battlefield casualties were horrendous with nearly 600,000 killed or wounded in combat

World War One 1914-1918
“…Cannon Fodder in the Trenches…”

The First World War was one of the bloodiest wars in history.
The incompetence of its military commanders and the awesome technology of the weaponry used resulted in the main battle zones being turned into giant slaughterhouses with casualties at almost 50% of the troops from the main participating armies.

The war was portrayed as ‘the war to end all wars’ and bring universal peace.
Though it led to the disappearance of some of the world’s greatest Empires liberating many of Europe’s nationalities in the process, nevertheless it caused more political problems than it solved leading eventually to the even more violent and bloody second world war.

The main protagonists were:
  • the ‘Allies’ -France, Britain, Russia, Italy, Serbia, Belgium and, in the latter part of the war, the United States.
  • the “Central Powers” -Germany, Bulgaria, Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire.
‘Defense’ Annihilates ‘Offense’
The war started with tactics similar in many ways to the Napoleonic era such as cavalry charges and full front infantry assaults. But the technological changes in weaponry that had occurred since 1815 made offensive war, as carried out with Napoleonic-era tactics, an impossible situation.
A combination of the improved defence-orientated battlefield developments such as machine guns, barb wire and trenches, decimated millions of those soldiers attacking across open ground towards the enemy lines.
New offensive weaponry such as tanks, gas, submarines and aeroplanes were not exploited to their full potential.
The main battle theatre in the West –Northern France- consisted of hundreds of miles of trenches with the front line changing little in four years of warfare as defense became king. The area between the enemies trenches – the aptly named ‘No Man’s Land’- witnessed more military deaths per square kilometre than any other place on the planet.

New Weaponry
The Germans were the first to introduce poisonous chemical weaponry in the form of gas onto the battlefield. They were fired towards enemy positons by artillery shells. Gases usually caused incacipation and damege to internal organs rather than death. Because of their air-borne silent nature and their indiscrimate use (not necessarily linked to an enemy attack), gases were much feared by soldiers. But gases were largely ineffective due to such factors as change in wind direction and the introduction of gas masks.

Submarines & Torpodoes
Submarines became a new and important weapon of war. Their main weapon was torpedoes. The Germans used submarines and their torpedoes to blow up ships carrying supplies from America to Britain. One of the ships torpedoed by their U-Boats (submarines) was the passenger liner ‘Lusitania’, which sank with the loss of 1,195 lives. This sinking led eventually to the entrance of the United States on the side of the Allies.


Tanks were used for the first time in the World War One. But their maximum speed was only 3mph and they suffered from constant mechanical failure.
They were also used in single numbers rather than as a concentrated attacking force thus undermining their impact as offensive weaponry.

Aeroplanes were also introduced for military purposes in the First World War leading to the opening up of a whole new war theatre in the skies .
Originally, airplanes were exploited for air reconnaissance of enemy ground movements and formations. Later they were armed with machine guns and used to attack enemy ground forces.
Long distant air-bombers as well as manned air balloons (Graf Zepplins) were used to bomb mainland Britain.

Conclusion of Study
Our main Conclusions were:
Tactics never kept pace with the developments in Weaponry. The inability of military commanders to appreciate the impact on war of the major technological advances from 1815-1918 directly contributed to the wanton deaths of millions of brave soldiers
In other words, in the words of one critic of the generals of World War One it was a case of “Lions Led by Donkeys”.
At the end of our period of study i.e. World War One, warfare still retained the traditional and familiar unit formations and battlefield tactics of the Napoleonic wars of the early part of the 19th century
But these formations and tactics had been fatally made obsolete by the range and firepower of the new weapons created by the rapid explosion in technology which was still not fully understood by the protagonists. Thus, when the British finally adopted the machine gun to their infantry formations, they assigned only one gun per battalion, relying upon the traditional rifleman to provide the firepower for the defense.
None of the combatants recognised that the awesome change in killing power had made offensive operations a deadly practice. The battlefield advantage had swung almost entirely to the defense.
The result was that the main battle zones of World War One such as Northern France were turned into giant slaughterhouses with casualties surpassing over 50% of all the main armies.
A consistency of the wars in the period that we covered was the sheer inability of the officer class of all armies to move away from their textbook treatises and learn from the harsh realities of the wars that they were involved in. One commenter aptly summarized the situation of the ordinary soldiers of World War One, who had to endure so much misery and death in the trenches, as he said that they were “lions led by donkeys”. Troops were treated as cannon fodder and the enemy was viewed as inferior. The generals learned nothing. Eight years after the war, the supreme British commander Field Marshal William Haig still insisted that “aeroplanes and tanks…are only accessories to the man and the horse”.