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Modern Warfare

From the time of Gustavus Adolphus and Frederick the Great up to and after the close of the Civil War in America, military methods were undergoing such a change that the period may be regarded as that of the rehabilitation of the science of warfare, for nearly every kind of arm or maneuver that was in use during the Middle Ages has now become obsolete. In the accomplishment of all this improvement in armament and tactics credit is due to all the great generals, including Napoleon, who hired the best mechanics to make experiments for him and who gave to Europe its first breech-loader. Today, however, everything but the small calibre rifle, and possibly the bayonet, has been relegated to the scrap heap, just as the antique fighting tactics, like the various variations of the phalanx and mass formations have given place to a more and more open formation, as the perfection in the fighting arms has required such alterations in the fighting methods of the world's armies.

In all the long history of warfare, which is in reality the narrative of the world's progress from earliest time, there is no similar period in which changes so vast and far-reaching have taken place as during the 19th century. There is much less difference between the naval and military methods of the Sixth Century before Christ and those of the Eighteenth Century than there is between the latter and those of the Nineteenth.

Until the 19th Century the difference that existed between the ancient war galley and the modern battleship was so slight as to justify the remark common among naval constructors of the day, that "naval architecture, like history, repeats itself." Until the introduction of steam, which was first attempted in 1815, but which did not become practical for naval purposes until 1846, men of war were but a trifling improvement upon the galleys of Diodorus Siculus. In 1857 came the era of iron ships, and the only thing in common between the wooden vessels of Trafalgar and the battle ship of the Spanish-American war was that each was a water-borne structure, armed with guns and propelled in some manner from point to point.

Although privateering in some form or other goes back to ancient times, the "sea beggars" had flourished especially as a recognized institution of civilized nations from the middle of the Sixteenth Century to the close of the Rebellion. The privateer was an armed vessel belonging to a private owner, the subject of a belligerent power, and bearing a commission from that power to destroy or capature the commerce of an enemy. England encouraged privateering by ordering that prizes taken should be divided between the owners and the captors, the rights of the crown being especially excluded in numerous prize acts. The United States, as a nation, also greatly encouraged privateering up to and during the War of 1812. Not less than 1,367 public and private armed vessels were commissioned by the colonies to prey upon British commerce during the Revolution.

The practical abolishment of privateering, a legalized form of piracy, constituted one of the most radical changes that has taken place in modern warfare during the 19th Century. The day of smart maneuvers under sail, of yard-arm to yardarm conflicts, of the carronade, swivel and boarding pike, is now a thing forgotten. The dare-devil style of climbing over a stranger's bulwarks, clearing his decks with naked cutlass and spitting pistols, and then asking his nationality and destination, is also forgotten. With its abolishment by the Treaty of Paris in 1856, the last vestige of poetry and romance departed from modern warfare.

Of the numerous explosive bodies that were discovered during the 19th Century, the only one that can be considered a rival of gunpowder was the substance known as cordite. This is a "smokeless powder", with so obvious a superiority for it over the best of the old style composition. In the manufacture of old-fashioned gunpowder many changes took place, both in process and general composition. By increasing the density of the grains, thus closing more tightly the pores through which ignition penetrates their mass, the energy of gunpowder was increased and the velocity of the projectile propelled thereby is proportionately increased.

The use of solid shot in warfare has been practically given up. The projectile of to-day is a conical shell of steel, hollow, and sometimes loaded with powder, so as to explode on striking, or by a time fuse. It is wonderfully different from the shell of twenty-five years ago. In those days one could watch the shell as it sailed through the air in a graceful curve, and there was time, under favorable circumstances, to get out of the way before it bursted. But the new style of shell moved at the rate of a mile a second, moved almost in a straight line, and its impact at a distance of a mile seems almost simultaneous with the discharge of the gun.

Napoleon, greatest of modern warriors, would be no more astonished than Admiral Nelson were he to return to earth and see with what strides the science of war has advanced during his absence. He would find that his heavy columns could not be launched in all their imposing pageantry; and that Murat, his daring cavalry leader, could not ride over an army with his horsemen. The grand and picturesque bayonet charge is a thing of the past.

The simple artillery pieces that were used at the battle of Waterloo were mere toys as compared to the rapid fire machine guns of the present day. The modern machine gun is the outcome of a series of evolutions in armament. The "mitrailleuse" came first, and soon showed its capabilities. Then the Hotchkiss showed the possibility of using heavier and larger projectiles. The modern rapid-fire gun was merely a product evolved from the "mitrailleuse" and the Hotchkiss, and the rapid-fire guns differ from each other in detail rather than in results. All carry heavy projectiles and discharge such shot with a rapidity that depends largely upon the caliber of the barrels, the larger the caliber and the longer the barrels, the slower the discharge.

One of the most marvelous institutions of modern warfare is the transmitting of intelligence by means of sunlight signals, or heliographing. The system of the heliograph is extremely simple. It employed a mirror much more carefully prepared, but not much bigger than the bit of looking-glass wherewith the mischievous schoolboy throws flashes of sunlight into other people's faces, and it works on the same general principle. The heliograph first demonstrated its efficiency and utility for field intercommunication in the Indian wars of the Western frontier, beginning in 1886. Three years later Major W. J. Volkman, USA, demonstrated in Arizona and New Mexico the possibility of carrying on communication by heliograph over a range of 200 miles.

A great deal has been done in late years to adapt the telephone and telegraph to troops in the field, but time and opportunity for constructing even a temporary line across a stretch of hostile country or regions exposed to the fire of the enemy is often lacking. It was formerly customary to resort to the flag by day and the torch by night, a certain signal code being brought into requisition. But the torch and flag were unavailable for greater distances than ten to fifteen miles.

The use of the balloon in warfare is another distinctly Nineteenth Century institution, its first recorded application to such purpose taking place during the Civil War. In 1862 General McClellan organized a balloon corps, with Thaddeus S. C. Lowe at its head. The innovation soon became a component part of the Army of the Potomac, as it did good service in disclosing the military operations of the Confederates. Now all the leading military nations of the world have their balloon corps, specially trained and equipped for reconnoitering purposes.

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Page last modified: 13-09-2012 19:13:18 ZULU