Littell's Living Age/Volume 130/Issue 1679/Modern Warfare

From Fraser's Magazine.



Sir, — Your article on modern warfare contains statements of so great importance to public interests that I do not hesitate to ask you to spare me space for a question or two respecting it, which by answering, your contributor may make the facts he has brought forward more valuable for practical issues.

The statistics given in the second column of page 695, on which "P. S. C." rests his "incontestable" conclusion, that "battles are less sanguinary than they were," are incomplete in this vital respect, that they furnish us only with the proportion, and not with the total number, of combatants slain. A barricade fight between a mob of rioters a thousand strong, and a battery of artillery, in which fifty reformers get shot, is not "less sanguinary" than a street quarrel between three topers, of whom one gets knocked on the head with a pewter pot; though no more than the twentieth part of the forces on one side fall in the first case, and a third of the total forces engaged, in the second. Nor could it he proved by the exhibition of these proportions of loss, that the substitution of explosive shells, as offensive weapons, for pewter pots, rendered wounds less painful, or war more humane.

Now, the practical difference between ancient and modern war as carried on by civilized nations, is, broadly, of this kind. Formerly the persons who had quarrelled settled their differences by the strength of their own arms at the head of their retainers, with comparatively inexpensive weapons, such as they could conveniently wield; weapons which they had paid for out of their own pockets, and with which they struck only the people they meant to strike. While, nowadays, persons who quarrel fight at a distance, with mechanical apparatus, for the manufacture of which they have taxed the public, and which will kill anybody who happens to be in the way; gathering at the same time, to put into the way of them, as large a quantity of senseless and innocent mob as can he beguiled or compelled to the slaughter. So that, in the words of your contributor, "Modern armies are not now small fractions of the population whence they are drawn; they represent — in fact, are — whole nations in arms." I have only to correct this somewhat vague and rhetorical statement by pointing out that the persons in arms, led out for mutual destruction, are by no means "the whole nation" on either side, but only the individuals of it who are able-bodied, honest, and brave, selected to be shot, from among its invalids, rogues, and cowards.

The deficiencies in your contributor’s evidence as to the totality of loss do not, however, invalidate his conclusion that, out of given numbers engaged, the mitrailleuse kills fewer than the musket. It is, nevertheless, a very startling conclusion, and one not to be accepted without closer examination of the statistics on which it is based. I will, therefore, tabulate them in a simpler form, which the eye can catch easily, omitting only one or two instances which add nothing to the force of the evidence.

In the six undernamed battles of by gone times, there fell, according to your contributor’s estimate out of the total combatants —

At Austerlitz  .   .   .   .  1-7
  Jena  .   .   .   .  1-6
  Waterloo  .   .   .   .  1-5
  Marengo  .   .   .   .  1-4
  Salamanca  .   .   .   .  1-3
  Eylau  .   .   .   .  5-2

while in the undernamed five recent battles, the proportion of loss was —

At Königgratz  .   .   .   .  1-15
  Gravelotte  .   .   .   .  1-12
  Solferino  .   .   .   .  1-11
  Worth  .   .   .   .  1-11
  Sedan  .   .   .   .  1-10

Now, there is a very important difference in the character of the battles named in these two lists. Every one of the first six was decisive, and both sides knew that it must he so when the engagement began, and did their best to win. But Königgratz was only decisive by sudden and appalling demonstration of the power of a new weapon. Solferino was only half fought, and not followed up because the French emperor had exhausted his corps d'élite at Magenta, and could not (or, at least, so it is reported) depend on his troops of the line. Worth was an experiment; Sedan a discouraged ruin; Gravelotte was, I believe, well contested, but I do not know on what extent of the line, and we have no real evidence as to the power of modern machines for death, until the proportions are calculated, not from the numbers engaged, but from those under fire for equal times. Now, in all the upper list of battles, probably every man of both armies was under fire, and some of the regiments under fire for half the day; while in the lower list of battles, only fragments of the line were hotly engaged, and the dispute on any point reaching its intensity would be ended in half an hour.

That the close of contest is so rapid may indeed be one of the conditions of improvement in our military system alleged by your correspondent, and the statistics he has brought forward do indeed clearly prove one of two things — either that modern weapons do not kill, or that modern soldiers do not fight, as effectually as in old times. I do not know if this is thought a desirable change in military circles; but I, as a poor civilian, beg to express my strong objections to being taxed six times over what I used to be, either for the equipment of soldiers who rarely fight, or the manufacture of weapons which rarely kill. It may be perfectly true that our last cruise on the Baltic was "less sanguinary" than that which concluded in Copenhagen. But we shook hands with the Danes after fighting them, and the differences between us were ended: while our expensive contemplation of the defences of Cronstadt leaves us still in daily dread of an inspection by the Russian of those of Calcutta.

It is true that the ingenuity of our inventors is far from being exhausted, and that in a few years more, we may be able to destroy a regiment round a corner and bombard a fleet over the horizon; but I believe the effective result of these crowning scientific successes will only he to confirm the at present partial impression on the minds of military and naval officers, that their duty is rather to take care of their weapons than to use them. "England will expect" of her generals and admirals to maintain a dignified moral position as far as possible out of the enemy’s sight: and in a perfectly scientific era of seamanship we shall see two adverse fleets affected by a constant law of mutual repulsion at distances of two or three hundred miles; while, in either squadron, an occasional collision between the leading ships, or inexplicable foundering of the last improved ones, will make these prudential manœuvres on the whole as destructive of the force, and about ten times more costly to the pocket, of the nation than the ancient, and, perhaps, more honorable tactics of poorly armed pugnacity.

There is, however, one point touched upon in "P. S. C.'s" letter, to me the most interesting of all, with respect to which the data for accurate comparison of our former and present systems are especially desirable, though it never seems to have occurred to your correspondent to collect them — the estimates, namely, of the relative destruction of civil property.

Of wilful destruction, I most thankfully acknowledge the cessation in Christian warfare, and in the great change between the day of the sack of Magdeburg, and that of the march into Paris, recognize a true sign of the approach of the reign of national peace. But of inevitable destruction — of loss inflicted on the peasant by the merely imperative requirements and operations of contending armies — it will materially hasten the advent of such peace, if we ascertain the increasing pressure during our nominally mollified and merciful war. The agricultural losses sustained by France in one year are estimated by your correspondent at one hundred and seventy millions of pounds. Let him add to this sum the agricultural loss necessitated in the same year throughout Germany through the withdrawal of capital from productive industry, for the maintenance of her armies; and of labor from it by their composition and, for third item, add the total cost of weapons, horses, and ammunition on both sides; and let him then inform us whether the cost, thus summed, of a year's actual war between two European States, is supposed by military authorities to be fairly representative of that which the settlement of political dispute between any two such powers, with modern instruments of battle, will on an average, in future, involve. If so, I will only venture further to suggest that the nations minded thus to try their quarrel should at least raise the stakes for their match before they make the ring; instead of drawing bills for them upon futurity. For that the money-lenders whose pockets are filled, while everybody else's are emptied, by recent military finance, should occultly exercise irresistible influence, not only on the development of our — according to your contributor — daily more harmless armaments, but also on the deliberation of cabinets, and passions of the populace, is inevitable under present circumstances and the exercise of such influence, however advantageous to contractors and projectors, can scarcely be held consistent either with the honor of a senate or the safety of a State.

I am, Sir,
Your faithful servant,
J. Ruskin

P.S. — I wish I could get a broad approximate estimate of the expenditure in money, and loss of men by France and Prussia in the respective years of Jena and Sedan, and by France and Austria in the respective years of Arcole and Solferino.