The First Two Generations of Modern War

First-Generation War

Although Lind and his fellow authors outlined the changes between the generations of modern war, it is essential to understand what caused these generational shifts. The article states that each of the first three generations evolved in response to technical solutions to specific tactical challenges.

Although tactical challenges clearly had an impact, attributing the generational changes in warfare primarily to military factors oversimplifies the problem. In fact, the forces involved could execute those tactics only because of the major political, economic, social, and technical changes that preceded them.

The first generation of war grew not just from the invention of gunpowder but also from the political, economic, and social structures that developed as Europe transitioned from a feudal system to a system of nation-states ruled by monarchs. The transition from the “chivalry” of feudal knights to the armies of Napoleon required centuries. This time was required not only to develop reliable firearms but, more important, to develop the political system, the wealth-generating national economies, the social structures, and the technologies capable of sustaining the mass armies of the Napoleonic era. During this time, the first generation of modern war evolved slowly, in consonance with the societies of western Europe. It peaked with the massive armies of the Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th century.

Politically, warfare of the size and complexity of Napoleonic war required the evolution of the nation-state. Only the resources of a nation-state could raise, train, equip, and sustain the massive armies of the French Revolution. The consolidation of the nation-state’s power and the nation’s transition from the private domain of a monarch allowed for the mobilization of its wealth, ingenuity, and manpower in support of a war.

The colonization of America provided a major economic stimulus that allowed countries to field larger, more technically advanced armies—the arrival of gold and silver from the New World. Although this led to tremendous inflation, it also vastly increased the coinage in circulation, which stimulated economic growth. Both the population and the gross domestic product (GDP) per person were increasing significantly faster than prior to 1500.

Economically, major advances in agriculture and transportation were essential to generating the wealth and resources required to field and sustain large armies. Improved agriculture and higher-yield crops arriving from America increased farmers’ productivity and reduced the labor necessary to achieve these levels of productivity. The combination increased the overall wealth of the nation, provided additional food for major armies, and, by freeing manpower from agriculture, provided an increase in the available manpower for mobilization.

As the wealth and trade of European society increased, so did the transportation network. Although the speed and displacement of ships at sea increased rapidly during this period, the dramatic increases came in the road and inland barge transportation networks across western Europe. Although these changes took place over centuries, they were essential to building the economic base that could both sustain and move much larger armies across Europe. In 1415 at Agincourt, about 31,000 men fought: 6,000 British and 25,000 French. In contrast, by 1815, at Waterloo, more than 200,000 men were present.

Socially, the development of a genuine feeling of patriotism in the mass of men making up the armed forces was essential to enable Napoleonic warfare. The French Revolution brought this feeling to the European continent, and the impact was obvious. Suddenly, warfare did not involve only royalty, a small professional army, and the treasure of a country—it involved the entire population. It was only this sense of patriotism that allowed the poorly trained French infantry to press home costly attacks against opposing armies. It was this enthusiasm that could provide a continuous supply of manpower to support the famous column attacks.

With the early success of the French, the other European powers had to widen the base of their forces, and the concept of nationalism began its transition to the other nations of Europe. This social change carried forward into succeeding generations of war.

Technically, mass production of the reliable, smoothbore musket, development of lightweight artillery, and the advent of rudimentary fast, long-distance communication via visual telegraph all contributed to the evolution of the first generation of modern war. Massed manpower had been the rule in ancient Greece and Rome and had even been a major part of war during the Middle Ages. However, the combination of changes across society provided the much larger armies and massed direct-fire weapons that marked the culmination of the first generation of war at Waterloo.

Clearly, evolution from medieval warfare to the first generation of modern war required significant change in the political, economic, social, and technological structures of the time.

Second-Generation War

Like the first generation of war, the second generation did not grow just from improvements in weaponry. It, too, required changes across the spectrum of human activity. Although the political structure of the nation-state was essentially in place at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the state’s power to tax and enforce taxes increased dramatically during the hundred years between Waterloo and the Miracle of the Marne.

Even more important than an increase in the ability to levy and collect taxes was much vaster wealth to tax. The GDP per person in western Europe almost tripled from 1800 to 1915, while the population increased about fifty percent. The combination of increased GDP per person, major population increases, and significantly better government control massively increased the wealth available to the national governments of Europe.

A great deal of this increase in wealth can be attributed to the rapid industrialization of western Europe and North America. Second-generation war required both the wealth generated by an industrial society and the sheer volume of output that only such a society can produce. Industry had to first design and then mass produce the weapons and the huge quantities of ammunition they consumed.

Even these exceptional production capabilities alone would not allow nations to apply second-generation warfare. The transportation systems also had to mature. In particular, extensive rail systems and their supporting telegraph networks were necessary to move the armies and their mountains of supplies. Although telegraphs were built primarily to support railroads, they proved essential to the national level control and coordination of these greatly enlarged forces. In sum, the economies of all participants had to expand enormously before the massive armies of World War I could be raised, transported, and supported. Further, the European nations had to develop logistically effective general staffs to combine these national assets, mobilize them, transport them, and then hurl them against the nation’s enemies.

Finally, second-generation war was not possible without the patriotic enthusiasm that brought millions of men to the colors and held them there through four years of catastrophic losses. In fact, the collapse of Russia’s armies can be traced largely to the fact that the Czar and his officers could not generate that kind of patriotism in their ranks. Even in the West, it was a close thing, as evidenced by the French army mutinies of 1917.

All these factors—political, economic, social, and technical—came together to create the stalemate of World War I. Even at the earliest stages of the war, it was obvious that the defense had gained the upper hand. It is clear from numerous diaries and histories that most professional soldiers of 1914 were surprised by the way warfare had changed. The question we need to explore is, should they have been surprised, or should they have been able to anticipate the change by studying recent conflicts?

Stalemate Foreshadowed?

Several key factors normally associated with second-generation war (2GW) drove the supremacy of the defense over the offense: machine guns, magazine-fed rifles, rapid-fire artillery, and barbed wire. The combined effect of these elements took away freedom of movement and forced both sides to rely on firepower—mostly indirect firepower—in tactical engagements.

Just as important to the defense was the extensive use of railroads—first for mobilization, then to swiftly shift reserves behind lines. The ability to shift troops by rail and detrain them close to the fight gave the defense a marked advantage over the offense. The defense’s reserves and supplies moved directly to the point they were defending, over well-developed rail and then road networks. In contrast, the offense could move troops only by rail to their pre-offensive assembly areas. The troops then had to move by foot across the horribly chewed-up terrain between the trenches. Even more difficult, the attacker’s artillery and logistics had to traverse the same devastated terrain.

The telegraph also played a key role in the stalemate of World War I. It permitted the coordination of armies fighting over a continental land mass. It allowed both sides to communicate the need for reinforcements at critical points and then coordinate the railroad movement of those forces. Combined with the superior mobility on the defense side of the line, it allowed the defense to shift forces to defeat any initial offensive successes.

Unlike the weapons, which could be mass produced for the war, the rail and telegraph networks had to be essentially in place upon commencement of hostilities. Although both sides would lay branch rail lines and send telegraph communications forward to key command posts, the backbones of both systems were in place in 1914. Thus, professional soldiers had ample opportunity to study the utility of rail and communications right up to the start of the war.

In fact, the mobilization plans of both sides not only relied on, but were driven by, railroad timetables and the staffs’ ability to control them, using the telegraph. The remarkable thing is that, despite intensive prewar study of the effectiveness of railroads moving troops to distant points, neither side seemed to see how both rail and telegraph favored the defense as it retracted onto its own communications and transportation system while the attacker had to build his as he advanced.

These technologies were the final products of the political, social, and economic changes between Waterloo and 1914. If the thesis of this book is correct, that warfare evolves over time and that the elements of each generation are visible for decades before they “surprise” the world, then each of these elements should have been present in earlier conflicts.

In fact, everything commonly believed to be distinct to World War I was present by 1864 in the U.S. Civil War. In General Grant’s final drive south, we see a direct preview of World War I. What starts as a campaign of movement eventually bogged down in trench warfare. Just like their successors in 1914, both sides found it impossible to dislodge an entrenched enemy. Bruce Catton says, “The hard fact was that by 1864 good troops using rifles and standing in well-built trenches and provided with sufficient artillery support simply could not be dislodged by any frontal assault whatever.”

The net result of three years’ experience meant that the firing lines changed from the Napoleonic volley exchanged between standing battalions at point-blank range to individual fire from deep trench lines. The outcome was obvious: the soldier in a trench had only his head exposed, whereas the attacking soldier had his entire body exposed. Firepower could now stop any attacker.

Although troops learned fairly early that the combination of rifled musket fire and rapid-fire artillery could prevent an attacking force from overwhelming a defense, the commanders and staffs were much slower to learn. Throughout the 1863 and 1864 campaigns in the east, both Union and Confederate officers ordered repeated direct frontal attacks on dug-in positions. None succeeded.

Further foreshadowing the First World War was the extensive use both sides made during the Civil War of railroads to shift reserves and sustain forces. They also used the telegraph to coordinate campaigns over the breadth of a continent.

In summary, all the key elements that made defense supreme in World War I were present in late 1864. The outcome was the same as it would be in 1914: the defense had the upper hand. Yet somehow, the professional soldiers of all armies (including ours) missed the lesson. Even more remarkable is the fact that the lessons were repeated in both the Boer War and the Russo-Japanese War—and were still not understood by Western armies.

It is clear that the transition from first to second generation was anything but sudden. It evolved over decades. From the early battles of the U.S. Civil War to the battlefields of South Africa and the trenches of the Far East, war provided repeated, clear examples of the effect that political, economic, social, and technical changes were having on warfare.