A Story Ahead of its Time
Few people have influenced the world through works of fiction like Herbert George Wells. Through his famous classics like The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine, he has set the foundations for the genre of science-fiction. He, along with other early science-fiction greats like Jules Verne foresaw many technologies that would shape the 20th century. One of his lesser-known works is ”The Land Ironclads”, a short story from 1903 published in “The Strand” magazine. It was a story written in the time when the next great European war loomed over the minds of many people and speculative stories exploring possible European conflicts of the future were as popular as they were provocative. H.G Wells’ story served as inspiration for Winston Churchill, one of the people that helped establish the Landships Committee. In the story, two sides find themselves locked in a trench warfare stalemate which is broken with the use of the titular Land Ironclads, 30 meter long heavily armed and armored behemoths powered by steam. This early vision of a future battlefield not only helped inspire the development of tanks but also foresaw the style of trench warfare in which real tanks would be fighting 13 years after it was written.
The story, told from the point of view of a war correspondent, begins in the middle of a war between two nations. Neither nation is named, instead, they are referred to as “the invader” (devitalized townsmen pressed into the role of a soldier) and “the defender” (tough soldiers and old-school patriots). The invader had attempted to march straight for the defender’s capital but was stopped by a prepared defensive line of trenches. The invasion ground down to a stalemate as both sides attempted to beat the other back. This stalemate was soon changed as the invader brought 14 Land Ironclads. With the use of these massive landships, the invader had assaulted the defender’s trenches. Having no artillery immediately available, the defenders could only plink the ironclads with their rifles as they got cut down by automatic fire. The defending forces relied on these machines being unable to cross the gap of their trench network, but they were proven wrong as the ironclads effortlessly crossed the gap and continued onwards. Eventually, the defenses were overrun and the heavy guns of the defender destroyed before they could be a serious threat. The entire defending army was reduced to ruin by a technologically superior force.
He looked at his watch. “Half-past four! Lord! What things can happen in two hours. Here’s the whole blessed army being walked over, and at half-past two——
Tactics of the Near Future
The disparity between the opposing forces was notable. The defenders were professional soldiers, the invaders were civilians pressed into the military. This disparity is noted by one of the defenders the war correspondent talks to before the attack. This, as well as the use of trenches, comes unsurprisingly as Wells drew a lot of notes from the Second Boer War for the story.
“Their men aren’t brutes enough: that’s the trouble. They’re a crowd of devitalized townsmen, and that’s the truth of the matter’ They’re clerks, they’re factory hands, they’re students, they’re civilized men. They can write, they can talk, they can make and do all sorts of things, but they’re poor amateurs at war. They’ve got no physical staying power, and that’s the whole thing. They’ve never slept in the open one night in their lives; they’ve never drunk anything but the purest water-company water; they’ve never gone short of three meals a day since they left their feeding-bottles. Half their cavalry never cocked a leg over a horse till it enlisted six months ago. They ride their horses as though they were bicycles—you watch ’em! They’re fools at the game, and they know it. Our boys of fourteen can give their grown men points….”
The invaders are devitalized townsmen, very much like the Boers who stood in stark contrast to the professional British army.
However, despite their lack of skills with war, the invading forces and their ingenuity proved more than a match for the less advanced but more skilled defender. H.G Wells vividly showcased modern war as a place where science and technology triumph, over strength and martial prowess.
Trench warfare is another very critical element of the story. While trenches have been used in warfare for far longer, mostly in sieges, in Wells’ story they took on a much more important role. Here too he drew notes from the Second Boer War which saw the use of trenches. However, in his fictional war, trenches take on a much more notable role, very reminiscent of the one they played in the Russo-Japanese war and World War 1 on many fronts. Furthermore, the Land Ironclads, like tanks in WWI, were used in the role of breakthrough, being able to cross trenches with ease and resist small arms fire. In the later parts of the story, invader cyclists and cavalry can be seen following the Ironclads after the breakthrough was made, taking care of the surrendered defenders and securing the advance. This too is very similar to the planned way that tanks were to be utilised on the Western Front. British commanders envisioned cavalry being used to exploit the gaps that tanks would create. In reality, that idea never materialized but it did reflect upon post-war tank tactics with fast tanks of the Russians and cruiser tanks of the British.
The Land Ironclads
“The daylight was getting clearer now. The clouds were lifting, and a gleam of lemon-yellow amidst the level masses to the east portended sunrise. He looked again at the land ironclad. As he saw it in the bleak grey dawn, lying obliquely upon the slope and on the very lip of the foremost trench, the suggestion of a stranded vessel was very great indeed. It might have been from eighty to a hundred feet long—it was about two hundred and fifty yards away—its vertical side was ten feet high or so, smooth for that height, and then with a complex patterning under the eaves of its flattish turtle cover. This patterning was a close interlacing of portholes, rifle barrels, and telescope tubes—-sham and real—-indistinguishable one from the other.” -The first full sighting of the tank in The Land Ironclads
The Land Ironclads were 14 large landships built by the devitalized townsmen to assault the defender positions. The machines consisted of a large steel framework borne upon eight pairs of pedrail wheels, a predecessor to tracks which actual tanks would use. On top of the iron-armored roof was a retractable conning tower with vision ports for the ironclad’s commander.
The ironclad’s armament consisted of rows of sponson cabins which were crewed by riflemen. The cabins were slung along the sides, rear and front of the ironclad. There is a notable absence of heavy weapons on such a large vehicle, however, considering it wasn’t designed to fight against anything but infantry and an occasional gun battery its armament is more or less suitable. Each gun was magazine fed and operated by a rifleman. They featured an optical sight that projected into the gunner’s cabin a camera obscura picture he would use to aim. The Rifleman would fire the gun using an electronic trigger. Each porthole had a dummy gun and optic to minimize the risk of damage to the real ones. In case an optic or a gun was damaged, the rifleman could repair either. From the text it can also be presumed that the ironclad carried spare guns and optics to replace damaged ones.
There are no solid values on the ironclad’s armor, however, the adjustable skirt is noted as being 12 inches (304.8mm) thick iron plating. Thus it can be assumed that the rest of the ironclad is equally if not better protected. It should be noted this was probably for dramatic effect. If this would have been the case, in reality, the ironclads would have had a hard time moving at all and would have sunk into the ground due to their incredible weight. Not to mention iron is not a good material for this purpose, steel would have been a lot better choice.
The land ironclads were pushed forward by compact steam engines which allowed them to travel at the speed of at least 6 mph (9.66kph). The entire thing moved on eight pairs of pedrail wheels. The pedrail wheels consist of a series of “feet” connected to pivots on a wheel. Each of the eight pedrail wheels was driving wheels set free to swivel upon long axles all around a common axis. According to Wells, this system allowed them to cross very rough terrain and keep moving steadily even on large slopes. This too is rather far-fetched if we take their supposed weight into consideration, they would stand a better chance plowing through a hill rather than crossing it.
The gunner cabins opened up into the central gallery which was like a long corridor running through the ironclad. On each side were the steam engines that ran it, together with various engineers maintaining them. The captain was located in the middle, with a retractable ladder that led to the conning tower. He raised and lowered the ladder via a wheel to climb into the conning tower which he could then raise and scout the surroundings.
Overall, the land ironclads can be considered more akin to wheeled naval warships on land then they would be to even the earliest tanks. However, some of the concepts and ideas behind them, like gun ports on all sides and large heavyweight chassis, can be found present in designs of actual landships some nations experimented upon. Perhaps the most similar real-life counterpart could be the Flying Elephant, a design made by the British Landships Committee.
There are a number of technologies featured in the story. To skim over more minor ones, there’s the idea of bicycles being used alongside cavalry, and indeed bicycle units did exist in armies of the time albeit on a smaller scale. Notable is also the presence of large guns and howitzers in the defender’s ranks, artillery pieces that would come to later define the battlefield.
The ironclads themselves feature three different technologies which ranged from mere prototypes to (at the time) complete fiction.
“It had humped itself up, as a limpet does before it crawls; it had lifted its skirt and displayed along the length of it—feet! They were thick, stumpy feet, between knobs and buttons in shape—flat, broad things, reminding one of the feet of elephants or the legs of caterpillars”
The most striking of these is the pedrail wheel which was mentioned earlier. It was invented by Bramah Joseph Diplock in 1903 sometime before the story was written.
“Mr.—Mr. Diplock,” he said; “and he called them Pedrails…Fancy meeting them here!””
The wheels were designed to aid in the crossing of muddy or otherwise treacherous terrain. Some more advanced versions even had suspension for every individual ‘foot’. However, the pedrail wheels never saw use in armored fighting vehicles (save perhaps a few prototypes, like the Orionwagen). Diplock abandoned this design in 1910 and went on to develop chain tracks which were the first to demonstrate advantages tracks hold over wheels.
The weapons the ironclads were armed with were, on their own, technologically ahead of their time. In 1903, self-loading magazine-fed rifles were mostly prototypes with the exception of the 1902 Madsen which, by that time was in production. The automatic weapons of the period were few and mostly either pistols or belt fed heavy weapons.
The way the guns were aimed is interesting in its own right. The sight through a camera obscura picture onto a table that the rifleman stood next to. The picture had a cross in the middle that indicated where the gun was aimed. The rifleman had a divider which he used to adjust for elevation and a knob with a button on it, the knob would rotate the gun and the button would fire the gun by sending an electric charge to it through two copper wires. Overall, the system worked by using a projected image for the gunner to observe and an electronically triggered magazine-fed automatic rifle, which suffices to say well ahead of its time.
“These were in the first place automatic, ejected their cartridges and loaded again from a magazine each time they fired, until the ammunition store was at an end, and they had the most remarkable sights imaginable, sights which threw a bright little camera-obscura picture into the light-tight box in which the rifleman sat below. This camera-obscura picture was marked with two crossed lines, and whatever was covered by the intersection of these two lines, that the rifle hit. The sighting was ingeniously contrived. The rifleman stood at the table with a thing like an elaborately of a draughtsman’s dividers in his hand, and he opened and closed these dividers so that they were always at the apparent height—if it was an ordinary-sized man—of the man he wanted to kill. A little-twisted strand of wire like an electric-light wire ran from this implement up to the gun, and as the dividers opened and shut the sights went up and down. Changes in the clearness of the atmosphere, due to changes of moisture, were met by an ingenious use of that meteorologically sensitive substance, catgut, and when the land ironclad moved forward the sites got a compensatory deflection in the direction of its motion. The riflemen stood up in his pitch-dark chamber and watched the little picture before him. One hand held the dividers for judging distance, and the other grasped a big knob like a door-handle. As he pushed this knob about the rifle above swung to correspond, and the picture passed to and fro like an agitated panorama. When he saw a man he wanted to shoot he brought him up to the cross-lines, and then pressed a finger upon a little push like an electric bell-push, conveniently placed in the center of the knob. Then the man was shot. If by any chance the rifleman missed his target he moved the knob a trifle, or readjusted his dividers, pressed the push, and got him the second time.”
Influence on reality
H.G Wells was a great thinker and, before war broke out in 1914, he had written many wars of his own, mainly global in scale, and Land Ironclads is no different. He always believed that we have overdone war and that the march of technology will create such powerful weapons that could obliterate mankind.
But he wasn’t the only one. As a matter a fact, he was but a part of the entire wave that came out of the Franco-Prussian war in 1871. The mind of Europeans was abuzz with possibilities of future large-scale European conflicts. The first of its kind was Battle of Dorking, made in 1871 by George Tomkyns. Many soon followed, notably Sir William Laird Clowes speculating naval warfare of the future in “The Captain of ‘Mary Rose’”. In France, Henri De Nousanne’s “La Guerre Anglo-Franco-Russe” was notable, and in Germany, the “Der Kriege gegen England” proved popular after The Navy Bill of 1900. In England, between 1903 and 1914 when Wells wrote the story, speculative war stories of a war against Germany were becoming even more common, some simply inflammatory while others were more comedic in nature. The Land Ironclads is one of the high-quality works of that time, Wells didn’t put emphasis on nationality. While he did try to hint at certain things, his combatants were merely dubbed the Invader and the Defender. The focus of the story was the machines.
The dimensions and design aspects of ironclads were not very realistic, but the idea they presented was. The Land Ironclads did indeed inspire the British Lord of Admiralty, Winston Churchill. He read the story and was convinced it could work in reality. He was an important figure in pushing the Landships Committee into action in 1915. First tanks rolled out in 1916 and, in 1925, during the Royal Commission testimony, Churchill testified under oath that the first person to foresee tanks was H.G Wells.
Churchill’s claim can be put to the question, however. There were authors before Wells that envisioned an armored vehicle of sorts, akin to a tank. It should be noted that Sir Ernest Swinton, an important driving force behind the creation of the first tank also wrote for “The Strand” at the same time as H.G Wells wrote his story. An inventor, James Cowen, half-a-century earlier, had envisioned armored vehicles with repeating weapons and, on the French side, Albert Robida envisioned his own armored vehicles in 1883.
Small armored vehicles with large lumbering ones, not too dissimilar to the ironclads in the background from Robida’s works.
In retrospect, while Wells’ predictions were not the most accurate, and there were stories of tanks before it, The Land Ironclads definitely benefited towards the creation of the very first tanks, which sparked a new way to fight wars that lives on in modern Main Battle Tanks.
Resources & Links
A reconstruction of H.G.Wells’ Ironclads based on contemporary drawings and its description within the novel. Illustrated by Airborneleaf, paid for by DeadlyDillema through our Patreon Campaign!