Hardcore History’s “Blueprint for Armageddon”
One of my favorite podcasts is Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History. If I’d had Dan Carlin as a history teacher, I may have become a history teacher myself. He’s fond of saying, “I’m not a historian, just a fan of history.” It is an apropos characterization. He speaks not with the dry, date-obsessed drone that might come to mind when one thinks of a high school history class, but with the exuberance of a fan—someone who truly loves the stories of our world.
Each Hardcore History episode takes a few months to produce, but shows are 3-4 hours long. And Carlin often dedicates several shows to a single topic—the Mongols, the fall of the Roman Republic, World War II’s eastern front, etc. So he’s essentially releasing serialized, full-length audiobooks.
His most recent episode is part IV in a series on World War I called “Blueprint for Armageddon.” I’ve been re-listening to the first three parts of the series before starting the latest episode, and I came across one of those passages that exemplifies what I love about the podcast. A moment in history when it becomes evident that the world has crossed a threshold. In this case, 19th-century military tactics meet 20th-century weaponry.
The moment comes in August of 1914, the opening salvo of the war as Germany invades Belgium. The Germans have taken Liege, but have not yet captured the string of forts surrounding the city. Those forts give Belgian troops a point of attack from which they can safely fire upon German soldiers if the German army presses on further into Belgium.
So Ludendorf [the German general] calls for his ace in the hole. As I said, the Germans had been preparing for this attack for a very long time. They knew that the Belgians might resist. And they knew if they did, they had to have a weapon that was greater than anything the people who built these forts had ever envisioned.
When constructed in the 1880s and 1890s, the forts had been guaranteed to withstand the shelling from any cannon in the world. But this was a new era, and the new cannons were nothing like the old cannons. Unfortunately for the Belgians, nobody knew quite how different the new cannons were until they showed up on the scene.
The weapons that are on the way from Germany to Belgium to reduce these forts are the best example I can think of to show how much has changed since the last time the great powers fought each other in Europe 100 years before. Nowhere is that more on display than in artillery, which 100 years ago in Napoleon’s time was already what Napoleon thought decided battles…
…His [Napoleon’s] big guns were firing 12-pound cannonballs. 12-pound cannonballs. The gun itself weighed about 1200 pounds. It’s the same gun essentially that both sides in the U.S. Civil War used…
The guns that are on the way from Berlin to Belgium, the largest weighs almost 300,000 pounds. 1200 pounds to 300,000 pounds. The shell that Napoleon’s 12-pounders fired were between nine and twelve pounds. The shell that this monster—the 420mm version of it that’s on the way—that shell is 2,000 pounds. The Napoleonic-era cannon that was so deadly at the time that it was shocking had an effective range of about 2000 yards. This weapon that’s on the way from Belgium that isn’t even designed for range at all—it’s a siege cannon, so it doesn’t have to fire very far—has seven times the range of that French cannon…
Carlin goes on to describe the transportation—pulled in parts by teams of 35 horses for each piece—and laborious assembly of these guns. But what puts the power into perspective, the part that stood out most for me, was the description of the firing of these cannons.
The gun crew had to go three football fields away—300 yards away—and fire the thing electronically. And they were still so close that they had to put cotton wadding over their eyes, their nose and their ears, and they had to fire this thing while their mouth was open or they’d blow out their ear drums and potentially worse than that. Imagine what this weapon does. The shell is fired in a 4,000-foot arc. It takes a full minute to get from the gun to the target. So you fire it, and there’s this 60-second wait until the explosion happens.
The wonderful world of science and engineering is going to take over the battlefield of this upcoming conflict in a way that it never has before. And this weapon to me most symbolizes, in the early part of this war, here’s your wakeup call. Here’s your Darth Vader. Here’s what 20th-century warfare’s gonna mean…
Carlin often makes the point that he’s not trying to exploit or sensationalize the horrors of the battlefield. To the contrary, he’s trying to put it into perspective, to give some context for the extreme situations that these soldiers faced to all of us listening on our daily commutes or at our desks or working in our gardens—most of us who will never know anything close to the experience of war. His main aim is to paint the human experience within the historic events. What is it like to be a Belgian soldier, in one of those supposedly impenetrable forts as thunderous, ground-shaking footfalls step closer and closer to your position?
Nothing motivates innovation quite like a war. And World War I would bring more than its fair share of new technology to the battlefield. Barbed wire was first used to great effectiveness on the western front. New machine guns. Airplanes first started to play a role in battle early in the war. Submarines made their first appearance, the German U-boats (short for “underwater boat”) wreaking havoc on commercial trade routes. And, perhaps bringing the most horror, Germany unleashed chlorine gas on the Allied soldiers at the first battle of Ypres. By the end of the war, both sides had violated agreements from the Hague Conferences in 1899 and 1907 with the use of chemical weapons (WWI was nicknamed “The Chemist’s War”).
It seems that there is a sort of Moore’s Law, usually associated with computing power, that also applies to the technology of warfare. Over time, technology increases the killing power of weapons exponentially. We see it in the weapons of World War I. And we would see another exponential leap in technology’s nihilistic power again in World War II at Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
At the 100-year anniversary of the World War I, a slew of books are set to be released. One I just added to my wishlist , The Long Shadow by David Reynolds, lays out the long-term effects of the Great War. It wasn’t just the machinery of warfare that changed; so much of our modern global politics—many of the conflicts we hear about on the nightly news—were shaped by the outcome of that war. Carlin’s Hardcore History series “Blueprint for Armageddon” and Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August are both great sources. I look forward to checking out The Long Shadow.