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Remembering and learning from the past: World War I and Iraq

By Jack Sturgess - posted Friday, 12 October 2007

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. George Santayana (1905).

The editorial columns in the Melbourne Argus of October 3, 1891 included the following comment: “We have yet to witness on European battlefields the momentous effects of the magazine rifle and smokeless powder. The magazine rifle, besides its greatly increased rapidity of fire, its long range and flatter trajectory, … will give additional advantage to the defence and create new difficulties for the attack.”

This opinion was based on the events of the American Civil War (1861-65), the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), and subsequent technical developments. The American Civil War had seen the introduction of pistols and rifles using the patented revolver mechanism of Samuel Colt that permitted repeating fire. It also saw the first effective machine guns, hand cranked Gatlings with six barrels. Basic rifling had been invented earlier, along with the minie principal to more effectively contain the gases generated by gunpowder when fired. The Franco Prussian War featured single-shot breech-loading rifles that were accurate over a long range.


Other technical advances in the second half of the 19th century included:

  • brass cartridge cases, which allowed the detonator, propellant and projectile to be consolidated into a single, easy-to-load bullet;
  • nitro-cellulose, smokeless, powerful propellants generated higher muzzle velocities and easier-to-aim flatter trajectories;
  • metal jacketed projectiles prevented the lead slug deforming in the barrel due to the increased acceleration generated by the new propellants;
  • more effective rifling imparted controlled spin to the projectile to maintain accuracy;
  • safe and reliable bolt-action breeches and box magazines evolved, best typified by the British Lee Enfield .303 and the German Mauser 7.65 mm repeating rifles; and
  • automatic firing, notably by Maxim (British) and Spandau (German) machine guns.

The effectiveness of machine guns and accurate rifles against massed troops was demonstrated with devastating results in the British action against the Matabeles in 1894 and against the Khalifa Abdullah and his dervishes at Omdurman, near Khartoum, in 1898. Sir Henry Kitchener, at age 48, was commander of the British forces (mostly Egyptian mercenaries) at the latter encounter. Winston Churchill was also present in his cavalry unit, the 21st Lancers. In a morning, about 10,000 dervishes were slaughtered by machine guns (Maxims) and accurate rifle fire; losses for the British forces were some 400.

On the basis of this campaign, Churchill later wrote The River War in which he reported that as the mayhem subsided, Kitchener was heard to remark that “the enemy had been given a good dusting”.

Kitchener, now Lord, had a less agreeable opportunity to appreciate the effectiveness of the long range, accurate magazine rifle when he commanded the forces of the British Empire in the Anglo Boer War in South Africa in 1901-02. In the Canadian history of that war, published shortly after, the authors make this observation:

The long range of the magazine rifles in the Boer-Briton war has been a factor in all engagements, and the Boers have been the men who, at the opening of their campaign of aggressive resistance to the British, were educated to give the improved weapons the greatest possible scope and efficiency, while at the same time they neglected no reasonable device to take all the chances of safety.


This scope and efficiency were demonstrated with deadly effect at Colenso (where 1,157 British soldiers were killed, and less than 50 Boers), and elsewhere.

South Africa dramatically demonstrated the superiority of bullet power over bayonet power, although the lesson was not generally recognised. European strategists were still overwhelmingly influenced by the Napoleonic theory of ceaselessly renewed frontal onslaughts, which had been effective against single shot, muzzle-loading smooth bored muskets.

In spite of the evidence that open order skirmishing lines got better and less costly results against modern weapons than massed close order bayonet attacks, the belief persisted that “morale” deteriorated when soldiers were separated into open order formation. This belief no doubt persisted most strongly among strategists who had not faced machine gun fire.

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About the Author

Jack Sturgess is a Fellow of the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy. He has worked in the mining industry for 40 years in six countries. He is a member of the State Library of Victoria Foundation and has an interest in history.

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