My last post looked at the acceleration and deceleration of technology as exemplified by selected YouTube clips from WW and WW II movies about combat flying. However, other interesting examples exist for an opposite issue: what happens when technology, hitherto very stable, suddenly takes off before human awareness takes note of the change and can assimilate it?
Once again, we invoke YouTube’s penchant to play to my love of history. One clip was from Stanley Kubrick’s classic period piece, Barry Lyndon. The particular clip shows Barry’s British regiment trying to dislodge a small French force from their position in an orchard during the Seven Years War (1756 – 1763) in Europe (the same British-French conflict called the French and Indian War in the American colonies). The tactics are stately: the British lines of soldiers, led by their officers – all in brilliant red coats – march at a measured pace toward the French line (garbed in spotless white uniforms). The French just hold their position and watch impassively. There is no attempt to take cover – there is no cover anyway, just a very level field. As the British approach nearer, the French officers issue the order to shoulder arms and fire. A mass of French flintlocks fire at point blank range over and over again and British soldiers fall, to be replaced by soldiers in the rear lines. But – the steady pace of the march is unaffected: considering the concentration of fire, the number of actual hits are small. Eventually, the two lines merge and the battle becomes a melee of hand to hand combat.
Why the stately march, the concentration of fire, the small number of hits, and the colorful uniforms: the technology of 18th century flintlock muskets. The barrels are smoothbores and significantly larger caliber than the lead balls they fired and are highly inaccurate – the guns are pointed in a general direction, not aimed in any real sense, so that only volley fire has any chance of stopping an oncoming battle line. The range of the muskets is very limited, so concealment and cover are useless. And… because the aim of the whole process is to close on the enemy line and break it in one-on-one combat, uniforms had to be unmistakable so soldiers would know who was who at close quarters.
So….let’s move ahead 100 years, to Gettysburg in 1863, and the YouTube clip of Pickett’s Charge from The Killer Angels. If a military cadet, who was present at Barry Lyndon’s action in the Seven Year’s War, were granted a very long life and transported from Europe to Pennsylvania, he would see little amiss at Gettysburg. There have been some technical improvements – percussion caps replaced flints and the muskets are a little more accurate with a longer range. But – the manual of arms is still pretty much the same: pour gunpowder into the barrel muzzle, ram it down (don’t blow off your fingers doing this – plastics are 60 years in future), ram in paper wading, put a lead ball in, ram it down, aim (or point) and fire. Then repeat: a trained solder could get off perhaps 3 rounds a minute. If he were a sharpshooter or sniper, he given a musket that was rifled (a direct descendent of the Kentucky Long Rifle from the Revolutionary War) so that the lead ball traveled a straight path – but the rate of fire was much slower.
And… the tactics of Pickett’s Confederate Division was exactly the same as Barry Lyndon’s Grenadiers 100 years earlier: form into lines in colorful uniforms, close with the enemy line while marching in a stately fashion, and try to break it… But – unlike the French, the Union line had artillery, the Union line was formed behind a stone wall, and musket technology was better, firing oval Minee balls and not round shot. It was a Confederate slaughter, but not so bad that Generals felt they had to change tactics. More observant officers could have seen a change coming in 1865 with the coming of the Henry repeating rifle: the powder change and bullet were one construction, the guns were breech, not muzzle loaders, the guns were rifled, and a soldier could fire several rounds without reloading. The stately march was becoming a thing of the past, but most officers didn’t notice – culturally, they were still fighting with Barry Lyndon and Napoleon.
The next YouTube clip: the Michael Caine movie “Zulu”. The climactic scene is an attack by massed Zulu warriors against a British outpost of perhaps 30-40 soldiers. But: the Zulus have spears and knives, and the Brits have bolt-action rifles. By rapidly firing in volleys, the Brits slaughter the Zulu tribesman though they are massively outnumbered. And here is another example of cultural blindness: although European staff officers could well see the effect of modern arms against Africans and Asians, they could not envision their European armies using these same weapons against each other: their mindset was still at the early 19th century.
The unfortunate cultural pay-off was World War I. The arms had improved immeasurably – machine guns, rapid-fire rifles, modern steel artillery. But – the generals who started the war in leadership positions on all sides were still mentally in the 1850’s when they were cadets, and thought the tactics they were taught then were eternal truths. The French went into the war wearing red pants as if Napoleon was leading them in 1810; the Germans wore spiked helmets, the Brits had no helmets at all. But – at least German and British soldier wore uniforms of camouflage colors: field grey for Germans, khaki for Brits (the Black and Tans of Irish infamy). It took 2 -3 year of fighting for culture to catch up with technology. As late as 1916 – 17 (at the Somme and Passchendaele), British infantryman were forming lines of battle like Barry Lyndon, and marching into entrenched machine guns.
Culture is a stubborn thing. The French and Brits learned that again in 1940 when they tried to fight WW I against German armor….
JTS – 7/3/17