Modern Warfare and Imperialism

by Eric Olson, Class of 1997

During the late 1800's and early 1900's, many inventions and new concepts changed the lives of people all over the world. The railroads, interchangeable parts, and the assembly line were some of the biggest catalysts for change. In particular, the assembly line, interchangeable parts, machine guns, and breech-loading rifles had the most profound impact on imperialists. Military organization copying the Prussian method also brought about changes.

Because of the Prussian victories during the Austro-Prussian and Franco-Prussian wars, the other European nations realized the benefits of organization. The great French army had been defeated by the Prussians, a fact which was due in no small part to the ability of the Prussians to organize. In turn, the Prussians learned their organization methods from the Union Army during the U.S. Civil War. The Prussians learned to hold War Councils, comprised of the military's generals, which eventually lead to the Prussian ability to know where any one soldier was at any given time.

The other European nations used this "new" concept of organization in attaining their imperialistic goals. The Euro-African armies, composed of two or three European leaders and about thirty to forty African soldiers, were able to consistently defeat African armies made up of three or four thousand soldiers, due to the excellent organization of the Euro-African armies. The one major exception to this rule was when the British lost to the Zulus at Isandalhwana in 1879.

The invention of the breech-loading rifle and of the machine gun offered the Euro-African armies a distinct advantage in battle. The breech-loading rifles were much faster than the old muskets. Instead of having to load and pack wadding, gunpowder, and a musket ball, a cartridge could be inserted into the breech, the gun could be fired and then reloaded, over and over again. In addition, the machine gun offered a much quicker way of eliminating problematic tribesmen. Obviously, an ax, knife, or spear cannot "hold its own" against such a weapon.

The new-and-improved concept of organization carried on into World War I (AKA the Great War), and the War Councils, as well as the methods of strategic planning before sending out one's troops are still used today. The Great War was the first large-scale war in the history of the world. Thus, the abilities to organize one's army, to keep one's supply lines open, and to be able to mobilize quickly were of great importance in WWI. The ability of small, albeit well-trained and well-armed groups of soldiers to defeat much larger untrained armies had worked in the depths of Africa, so the leaders of WWI figured that it should work along the front lines of World War I as well. Organization was the key to winning the Great War.

The invention of the breech-loading rifle and of the machine gun, both of which were mass-produced, gave to soldiers in World War I the ability to take out enemy forces much quicker than they had ever been able to. In addition, the invention of these two weapons lead to the need to re-organize the armies, as well as their strategies; enter trench warfare. The soldiers on both sides of the Great War were forced to dig long trenches in which they could hide themselves in order to escape machine gun fire. The widespread use of trenches lead to the need for a new weapon. Enter chemical warfare, and in particular, gases (i.e., mustard gas).

Due to the effective organization of the Euro-African armies, coupled with the more powerful weapons of the day, the concept of warfare was completely changed during the Age of Imperialism. Suddenly, small, well-trained armies were able to conquer much larger armies (about 100 times larger). These concepts were then used during the Great War, since they were so effective in Africa. With the increasing usage of machine guns and breech-loading rifles, strategies and methods of organization were forced to change. In this way, the methods of warfare which had been developed by around the time of the Austro-Prussian and Franco-Prussian wars, turned in on one another and forced one another to change. These changes occur even today, as we develop better weapons and better methods of fighting wars.