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Interrogating the future: imagining war in an age of change, 1870-1914

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

This thesis asks new questions of material dedicated to imagining the future of war, written between the Franco-German War of 1870 and the start of the First World War. It investigates what civilian and military writers meant by ‘the future’, and what methods they used to forecast the character and duration of a great war in Europe. With foundations in the rich historiography on the subject, the thesis has centred on a systematic evaluation of British periodicals in the period of interest, counterpointed by an assessment of key military journals, and literature identified as significant by previous historians.
The thesis has advanced the historiography by identifying the Russo-Turkish War (1877-78), and the Battle of Plevna in particular, as the starting point of a recognition that new weapons would revolutionise warfare, leading to a widespread apprehension over the consequences of a European war in the 1890s. It has also provided strong evidence to support the view that the British military understood the lessons of the South African War (1899-1902) and developed rational tactics to meet the challenge of more effective rifles. It has also determined that the cavalry, which faced the same challenge, sought excuses as to why their arm performed poorly in recent wars, rather than accepting its slide towards obsolescence on the battlefield.
Above all, however, the thesis has demonstrated the need to recognise the challenge commentators faced when they tried to forecast the future at a time of unprecedented technological change. Their means of predicting the future were immature, and the vast majority of civilian or military writers defined the future of war as something imminent; or focused on the effect of new weapons on the battlefield, rather than speculating on their strategic impact. The two main exceptions, Jean de Bloch and H. G. Wells, lie at the core of the thesis, because they are the exceptions which proves the rule. Their predictions were not necessarily altogether ‘right’, but they stand out as having developed new methods of interrogating the future. Military conservatism, however, including resistance to the adoption of scientific methods, prevented their approaches from gaining traction, leading to a widespread failure to foresee how the interaction of new technologies would lead to the deadlock of the First World War.
Original languageEnglish
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Supervisors/Advisors
Award dateSep 2020

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