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 Post subject: the great war of 189-
PostPosted: Tue May 16, 2017 11:02 pm 
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“Histories of future wars” go back a ways. This one was originally serialized in Black and White magazine, which was a weekly literary journal. The lead author is listed as “P. H. Colomb”, who turns out to have been a retired Vice Admiral in the Royal Navy who was sort of a UK equivalent of Alfred Thayer Mahan; there are six coauthors listed. As befits the serial format, the narration is a series of supposed letters and dispatches from private individuals and newspaper reporters. The Great War of 189- sometimes makes you wonder how they could be so prescient; at other times you wonder how they could be so clueless.

In the “Prescient” department, the war starts over an assassination in the Balkans; it’s Prince Ferdinand of Bulgaria who gets stabbed (not fatally). The culprits are caught and confess to being Russian agents; almost simultaneously Serbia (always spelled “Servia” here) and Russia invade Bulgaria, Serbia by land over the border and Russian in an amphibious landing at Varna. The next prescient thing is the effect of entangling international alliances. Austria-Hungary declares war on Serbia in support of Bulgaria; Russia declares war on Austria-Hungary in support of Serbia; Germany declares war on Russia in support of Austria-Hungary; France declares war on Germany as part of its Dual Entente obligations; Italy declares war on France as part of its Triple Alliance obligations; the UK threatens war if the French and Russian fleets unite in the Baltic; Russia declares war on England and France follows suit. In the end, then, we have:

The Red Side: Russia, France, Serbia
The Blue Side: Bulgaria, Austria-Hungary, Germany, Italy, the UK, the Ottoman Empire, Spain
Neutrals favoring Red: Denmark
Neutrals favoring Blue: Belgium
Freelancers: Mahdists in the Sudan

The makeup of the belligerents is initially surprising, considering how things worked out in 1914. However, given the politics of the time, it is understandable. France was still viewed as the ancient enemy of England and French advances in Africa were generally seen as threatening Egypt and the Suez Canal. Russia and England, of course, had been engaged in The Great Game in Central Asia for years and it was assumed the Russians had designs on India. The Dual Entente had just been negotiated; although it was supposed to be secret, the English had an idea that something might be up. Germany, on the other hand, had not yet started the enormous naval buildup that would set it against England, plus the Kaiser was Queen Victoria’s grandson, young and handsome.

Again, under “Prescient”, the Russians have got ahold of a dirigible (provided by the French and described as a “balloon capable of moving against the wind”) and use it to bombard Varna, using some sort of ultra-high explosive involving liquid oxygen. The correspondent describes the horrors of a bombardment of a defenseless town.

The “Clueless” department sadly prefigures what would happen in 1914. The authors all praise the new smokeless powder magazine rifles, without realizing they would make the large scale infantry and cavalry movements in open terrain, as described in the text, impossible. There is no mention of machine guns, although the Maxim Gun had been around for a while. Artillery is all direct-fire and non-recuperating; the “French 75” won’t come along for a few years yet. It is mentioned that long range rifle fire makes things difficult for artillery crews. The trouble with smokeless powder cartridges that made the Lee-Metford obsolete almost as soon as it was introduced are brushed away, with a private firm making up the cartridges the UK government was unable to manufacture. An illustration shows a sergeant explaining the magazine rifle to a recruit; it’s clearly a Lee-Metford (however another illustration shows Gurkhas attacking at Vladivostok, and they all have Martini-Henrys).

The Belgians are persuaded by the Germans to allow free transit and the use of their railroads, which seems unlikely; they also allow the English to occupy Antwerp as a precaution, which also seems unlikely.

Given that the lead author is a retired admiral with a reputation as a tactician, naval actions are not well described. For the Germans versus the Russians in the Baltic, the “correspondent” is an English civilian who just happens to find himself on his yacht in the middle of the action and is unable to identify much that is going on, except that there are “big ships” and “little ships”. A battle between the French and British Mediterranean Fleets off Sardinia is somewhat less vague; the Royal Navy rams and captures the French flagship by boarding but it’s otherwise inconclusive. Navies of the time tended to be ram-crazy, focusing on the Battle of Lissa (and perhaps the sinking of HMS Victoria by HMS Camperdown); but by the time of the actions portrayed in the book the chance of successfully ramming a ship that was trying to avoid it – and shooting back - were pretty small.

Almost all the land actions are settled by brilliant cavalry charges after great sweeping movements by the armies. My grasp of cavalry terminology is poor; I had to look up the differences between Uhlans and Hussars and Chasseurs. Once again, it seems like the authors hadn’t really realized the implications of accurate and rapid rifle fire; I remember reading about British observers during the American Civil War complaining critically that there were no grand cavalry charges, with both Union and Confederate officers replying that these were impossible in the face of rifle-armed infantry (and those would have been single shot muzzle loaders). This seems to be have been true of all nations’ military at the time; when the French deployed rapid fire cannon they were conceived as an offensive weapon, smothering any resistance in front of them; machine guns were seen the same way by the American and German armies, moving quickly to shoot up anything that was holding up an infantry advance, and if magazine-rifle armed infantry were held up in the advance they were to just lie prone and shoot until they could advance again. Nobody quite caught on that if the defending side also had rapid fire cannon and machine guns and magazine rifles things would go poorly.

Thus the book is mostly wishful thinking by its English authors. English troops and sailors always perform splendidly; there are no foul-ups or “muddling through”. The Germans move with machine-like precision but this eventually gets them into trouble before the gates of Paris. The French are excitable and disorganized but show elan when it counts. The Russians have stoic courage. The Italians have parliamentary debates. The Americans scarcely appear at all; the final grand action at Paris is described by an American reporter (since France and England are at war) who has no particular national characteristics (although he notes that the Germans, advancing in rigid, goose-stepping order, would have been seen with contempt by veterans of Gettysburg or The Wilderness.

The war ends not quite before the leaves fall but in a single year, with the peace treaties signed in December. The Russians are forced to give up Poland as an independent kingdom. The French and Germans have fought to a draw, with no territorial changes. The French have seized Sierra Leone and the British Vladivostok, with no particular indication as to what either of them were going to do with those territories. The British have used the Canadian Pacific Railway as a “land bridge” to move troops to India, since both the Suez Canal (because the French fleet is active in the Mediterranean) and the Cape route (because the French now have a naval base in Sierra Leone) are dubious; there are some criticism of this in postscripts since the Canadians might vote for annexation to American or, even if they don’t, have the railway blocked by “hired raiders from the USA”.

Something of a difficult read due to the language. Lots of illustrations, which are all blurry engravings of military actions. Only one map and that’s poorly done. I expect the reader was supposed to know where places like Varna and Verdun were. Worthwhile mostly as a curiosity.


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