Military Fantasies

A large and influential proportion of the military leaders just prior to World War I had embraced a fantasy version of war, one founded in the tactics and strategy of Napoleon but made utterly obsolete by the machine gun, the long range rifle, and rifled artillery. They imagined a war in which the offense, the infantry and cavalry charges would be quickly decisive.

“It must be accepted as a principle,” said the 1907 British cavalry manual, “that the rifle, effective as it is, cannot replace the effect produced by the speed of the horse, the magnetism of the charge, and the terror of cold steel.” There was talk too of breeding stronger and faster horses to gallop quicker across the fire zone.

Attack, battles, a war itself, all were to be fast and, crucially, short. “The first great battle,” an officer told the French parliament in 1912, “will decide the whole war, and wars will be short. The idea of offense must penetrate the spirit of our nation.”

Macmillan, Margaret (2013-10-29). The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 (Kindle Locations 6348-6353). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

This fantasy depended on a combination of wishful thinking and ignoring the lessons of the American Civil War and the Boer War. It should seem bizarre and preposterous to us - as it proved to be - but was it any more preposterous than the American military's infatuation with counter-insurgency tactics in the last 60 years?


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