Technology and 19th Century War

Here is another subject I was ruminating about this morning and last night.

What is the relationship between technology and victory?


This is especially important from the late 18th century forward when the pace of technological innovation in western civilization sped up.  Keep in mind that to the modern mind, change is a constant but that was not always the case, indeed for most of human history it was not the case.  For example, the horse was the main means of transport for 90% of human history, it has only been since the 1840’s since the horse began to be superseded and only really since the 1950’s when the horse disappeared as a main means of transportation.  The Wehrmacht of WWII was mostly a horse drawn force, the visions and popularity of striking Panzer forces were only a tiny part of the Nazi military machine.  There were only 17 Panzer divisions in the German Army against something like over 150+ infantry divisions with horse drawn transport.

In the 19th century the revolutionary transport method was the train.  Rail movement allowed for the mass movement of men and material faster than ever before.  The limitation was that rail only let you go where tracks already existed of a suitable gage.  Trains only got you as far as the end of the line.  Once an army reached its concentration area it was limited to the rate a man could march as to how fast it could go, this limitation also applied to the logistic support of this army.  So rail revolutionized transport, but only to a point.

This same argument can be made when we look at tactical level technology.  One such example is the introduction of rifles and breechloaders.  This subject appeals to me because in 1866 the Prussian army was the only army in the world that had fielded a rifled, breechloading weapon.  This was the Dreyse Needle Gun which the Prussians fielded starting in 1848.  A key part of most present analysis of the campaign of 1866 says that Prussian tactical superiority was decisive and the effects of the rapid fire of the needle gun were an extreme shock to their Austrian opponents.

But a frank discussion of technology in war is probably long overdue in historical circles.  It is generally taken as a given that the side which is technologically superior will win.  Or in other words that God favors not the big battalions but rather he favors the battalions with the neatest toys.  I don’t necessarily think that history proves this point.  A close look at any of the wars since 1815 will show that technology does not win wars, yes possession of a technology the opponent does not have confers an advantage, but that advantage need not be decisive.  In the final analysis it is the use to which the human material of war is put that decides wars.  The best technology in the world is useless if soldiers are not trained in its proper employment or if the doctrine of its use is faulty.

There are numerous examples of advanced technology conferring no significant advantage in a war.  The current war in Afghanistan is but the most recent; but this principle applies to conventional wars as well as insurgencies.  Look at French employment of the mitrailleuse in 1870 as one example or the Russian failure to use railroads in the Crimea in 1854 as another.