Literature of War: The Land Ironclads (H.G. Wells)

Wells is remembered today primarily for his imaginative science fiction novels The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine, both absolute milestones in the developing field. He’s less well known for his shallow socialist politics, and his works that tend towards the didactic, like In the Time of the Meteor and Things to Come did not hold up nearly as well.

But his short story The Land Ironcladsalthough much less developed than his novels, describes a near-future war with the prescience normally associated with his French counterpart Jules Verne; the decisive weapon of this war is the Land Ironclad, which is now known to the world as a Tank. But he published the story in 1903, a dozen years before tank development began; one wonders if this story was known to, and influenced, the builders of the early armored fighting vehicles. Consider this: the word “tank” was originally a cover name, to conceal the fact that the British were developing a “Landship” or “Land Dreadnought.’ Did they get the idea from Wells? Or was it just one of those ideas whose time was coming, at the hand of one man if not another?

Like Verne, Wells gets some details of his imagined machine wrong (the “footed” wheels he describes were actually used on some WWI field pieces, but tanks had the caterpillar track; and tanks would run on Otto-cycle internal combustion engines, not steam) but others were very interesting. The Land Ironclads come up to solve a problem of… trench warfare. (And recall, this story predates not only the Great War but also the Russo-Japanese War, often held up as an example military officer botched the chance to learn from. Consider his description of how a group of riflemen would work inside the Land Ironclad.

The riflemen each occupied a small cabin of peculiar construction and these cabins were slung along the sides of and before and behind the great main framework, in a manner suggestive of the slinging of the seats of an Irish jaunting-car. Their rifles, however, were very different pieces of apparatus from the simple mechanisms in the hands of their adversaries.

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.

This rifle and its sights protruded from a porthole, exactly like a great number of other portholes that ran in a triple row under the eaves of the cover of the land ironclad. Each porthole displayed a rifle and sight in dummy, so that the real ones could only be hit by a chance shot, and if one was, then the young man below said “Pshaw!” turned on an electric light, lowered the injured instrument into his camera, replaced the injured part, or put up a new rifle if the injury was considerable.

Do not mistake this, though, for being all technology and no drama and humanity. Here, for instance, is the portrait Wells paints in a paragraph of a Land Ironclad captain and his crew:

He was a young man, healthy enough but by no means sun-tanned, and of a type of feature and expression that prevails in His Majesty’s Navy: alert, intelligent, quiet. He and his engineers and his riflemen all went about their work, calm and reasonable men. They had none of that flapping strenuousness of the half-wit in a hurry, that excessive strain upon the blood-vessels, that hysteria of effort which is so frequently regarded as the proper state of mind for heroic deeds.

And the whole theme of the story is not, as you might think, man versus machine, but more what sort of man would fight in these machines (“devitalized townsmen”) and what sort would do without (“brutes,” “cunning, elementary louts,” from “our open-air life”).

For these reasons alone we could recommend The Land Ironclads, and advise you to go Read The Whole Thing™. But the very best part of it, which we shall not spoil for you, is Wells’s portrait of his point of view character, the War Correspondent (who is never named, beyond that). If you believe that the schism between soldier and scribe is a new thing, do read this story.

As an little something extra, here is a Librivox recording of the story, so you can listen instead of read.

May this Christmas bring war only in fiction, science or otherwise!

3 thoughts on “Literature of War: The Land Ironclads (H.G. Wells)

  1. Cap'n Mike

    Merry Christmas to you and yours Hognose, and to all who read and comment o this blog, my favorite place on the web.

  2. John M.

    Regarding Wells’ ham-fisted socialism, a critic is reputed to have said of Wells, “Mr. Wells is a born storyteller who has sold his birthright for a pot of message.”

    -John M.

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