The Land Ironclads
by H. G. Wells

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Strand Magazine, December 1903

collected in —
The Time Machine and Other Stories

The Short Stories of H. G. Wells April 2007

The tank breakthrough

"The Land Ironclads" is H. G. Wells' prophetic science-fiction story of armored tanks in combat. His tanks (he doesn't use that later word) are large for land vehicles, more like small warships. Some of the design features are far in advance of 1903, not just imaginative propulsion but scientific fire-control.

A key concept is that the land ironclads may be used to break through hostile trench systems, of the kind that established the long stalemate on the Western Front during most of 1914-1918. It is not merely the surprise of the tank attack, but the inability of riflemen or artillery to counter the tanks, and the lack of specialized anti-tank weapons or tactics, that give the victory to the ironclads in Wells' story. It signals a change in the strategic balance on battlefields, hence in war generally.

"The Land Ironclads" is told vividly from a viewpoint on the defending side. The sense of place is strong, after the attack beings we find ourselves right in the midst of the lines being overrun; although I found it harder to visualize the battlefield tactically. It's a good story, a brisk and quite readable mini-documentary.

Industrious tank drivers versus brave outdoorsmen

Unlike The Battle of Dorking and other war-prophetic stories, Wells does not name the countries who are battlefield antagonists, allowing us to focus on the nature of the ironclads and their unexpected breakthrough, rather than nationalistic truisms. This works nicely, although there is an interesting undertone. The defenders are described as nationally more vigorous and soldierly, coming from backgrounds as sportsmen and outdoor workers. The attackers are suggested to be less obviously of toughened soldier material, indoor city fellows from offices and factories.

I take this unlabeled contrast to be of defenders: British Empire active outdoorsmen headed by sunburnt veterans from colonial wars, plain soldiers of the classic type; versus attackers: German Empire industrial workers who may not be dashing chargers-on-horseback but have invented something better, the bringing of industrial machinery to war-fighting. It is this applied inventiveness, the industrial-mechanical superiority on the battlefield achieved by the land ironclads, which brings victory.

This is an analysis by Wells that would have been useful to the chateau generals in the coming First World War, could they but heed it. It's not a new idea really, that technology may overweigh skill and bravery and other soldierly virtues: it surely goes back to the first use of distance weapons in battle, the bow and the spear outreaching sword and club. As Leo Tolstoy earlier had pointed out in War and Peace, artillery does not care how brave you are.


© 2007 Robert Wilfred Franson


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