A 1904 illustration to HG Wells’ 1903 tale, ‘The Land Ironclads’.


The Guardian ran an interesting article yesterday on their archive blog, commemorating the centennial of another military first.

One hundred years ago this week saw the first use of tanks on a battlefield. ‘Dreadnoughts of the Trenches‘ reflects on the Guardian and Observer’s early coverage of this new technology. The journalistic reaction at that time to the immediate potential of these vehicles was, unsurprisingly, enthusiastic. By 1916, the ongoing stalemate on the Western Front had bred desperation for any breakthrough that might bring the war to a conclusion. For a little while, tanks seemed like they might be just the kind of mercurial invention that could smash through the stasis of trench warfare: a new cavalry, perhaps, whose momentum could help speed Britain to victory.

Tanks were only the latest invention to fail to realise this dream. The history of tanks demonstrate, of course, the invention’s subsequent effectiveness: the successful Blitzkrieg of the second world war was made possible by German Panzer divisions, for example. Yet the immediate employment of Tanks during the Somme did not lead to a lasting breakthrough. The first generation of tanks used at Flers-Courcelette, the Mark I, were mechanically unreliable and struggled on the ragged terrain. In fact, the first real success of the war using tanks did not occur until over a year later, at the Battle of Cambrai in November 1917, when over 400 Mark IV tanks overran German defences.

Where tanks were an immediate success, however, was in terms of their imaginative potency. I think we can get a sense of this in the early naming of tanks, highlighted in the article: the dreadnoughts of the trenches. Dreadnoughts were big-gun battleships first produced in the early years of the twentieth century, so named after the revolutionary design of the British battleship HMS Dreadnought, which first saw service in 1905. The Dreadnought became a public obsession in Britain during the global naval arms race of the early twentieth century. Both terrifying and effective as a weapon of war, dreadnoughts were seriously described as “a most devastating weapon of war, the most powerful thing in the world”. So, if the tank were like the Dreadnought, who then could stand in its way?

The metaphor had persisted throughout the tank’s development. Tanks were the product of a British focus on the development of armoured vehicles, led by the Landships Committee in early 1915. The name ‘tank’ in fact only emerged as a code, to hide the true intentions of those developing the vehicle (suggesting a vehicle used to move water, perhaps in hot climates like Mesopotamia). The term ‘Landship’, on the other hand, gave away too much of the designers’ intentions. The true objective was a mobile, well-armoured and armed fortress that could rove the battlefield with the impunity of a battleship on the sea.

One long-acknowledged possible source for this idea is a story written in 1903 by Britain’s greatest science fiction writer, HG Wells. In 1903 Wells published a short story in the Strand magazine called ‘The Land Ironclads‘. Ironclads- late nineteenth century steam battleships armoured with iron plating-  are the metaphorical vehicle Wells uses in this story to suggest the dreadful power and physical imperviousness of the armoured vehicles that rove his future battlefield. In the story, thirteen ironclads defeat an entire army:

“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 thing had come into such a position as to enfilade the trench, which was empty now, so far as he could see, except for two or three crouching knots of men and the tumbled dead. Behind it, across the plain, it had scored the grass with a train of linked impressions, like the dotted tracings sea-things leave in sand. Left and right of that track dead men and wounded men were scattered—men it had picked off as they fled back from their advanced positions in the searchlight glare from the invader’s lines. And now it lay with its head projecting a little over the trench it had won, as if it were a single sentient thing planning the next phase of its attack…”

There is an interesting lesson in the power of metaphor here, perhaps. Metaphor, of course, is a conceptual habit of human beings: in using metaphor we have one set of thoughts and images (the world of the land, and battle in the trenches, or a muddy field) and carry this over to another set of dissimilar thoughts and images (an armed battleship on the sea, say, denoted by the words ‘Ironclad’ or ‘Dreadnought’). Out of the interaction of these different forms of knowledge, a novel thought or image is sometimes created: here, a ‘Land Ironclad’.

The introduction of such inventions into the otherwise realistic detail of the Science Fiction writer’s fictional world can be risky- badly handled, the effect of this new thing can be one of absurdity, implausibility, or a kind of predictable mystery. Done well however, metaphor in science fiction prompts revelation and produces strange enigmas. Wells knows this danger, and so when he describes the Land Ironclads resting on the edge of the enemy trenches, his narrator makes explicit the implicit idea behind his invention: he declares that “the suggestion of a stranded vessel was very great indeed”. Wells’ genius however- once he has admitted to the reader one of the roots of his metaphor- is to draw us back to the peculiar and personal sense of threat that such new technological possibilities always present: so, “now it lay with its head projecting a little over the trench it had won, as if it were a single sentient thing planning the next phase of its attack…”

The well-judged metaphor is something more than just a plausible concept: it has an emotional, persuasive, almost pre-rational weight. Anyone who loves poetry knows this. The notion of the Land Ironclad was ultimately a thought so persuasive, and the desire for its successful realization during the First World War so powerful, that when technical innovation caught up with imaginative thought, the time of the ‘Dreadnoughts of the Trenches’ had finally come.