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18 September 2014
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From the Field Gun to the Tank

By Professor Richard Holmes
Towards a digitised battlefield

Image of a wounded British soldier passing through the Franco-British outpost line, March 1918
A wounded British soldier passing through the Franco-British outpost line, March 1918 ©
As the 20th century neared its end, there were increasing suggestions that the day of the tank was over, and that such heavy and expensive weapons were not only difficult to transport to many of the world’s trouble-spots but easily destroyed by new technology like the anti-tank helicopter.

Yet the jury is still out: the tank played an important role in the Gulf War, and the Warrior mechanised infantry combat vehicle, originally designed to serve alongside the tanks in the unfought battle against the Warsaw Pact, has proved useful in peace-enforcement missions in the Balkans.

'Some of the British Army’s greatest successes in the past decade have stemmed from qualities like cohesion ...'

There is growing evidence of the central role of information technology, whether in terms of communications, target surveillance and acquisition, or navigation, and we are within measurable distance of the ‘digitised battlefield’ on which every soldier can communicate by radio, and both he and his commanders will know precisely where he is.

Yet a balance must be struck between man and machine. Some of the British Army’s greatest successes in the past decade have stemmed from qualities like cohesion, unit pride and training which would have been understood in the age of horse and musket, reinforced by support from families and friends at home.

Air power and indirect fire unquestionably have their place, but often the risk of collateral damage and the need to win hearts and minds means that it is the soldier on the ground who must clinch the deal set up by technology. Ultimately, doctrine can be taught and equipment can be bought. But without soldiers who are prepared to risk their lives, often miles from home, in a cause which may have little of the ‘Queen and Country’ resonance of yesteryear, no army can hope to prosper.

Although the Duke of Wellington had a low opinion of the men who joined the army in his day, he recognised that in the last analysis everything hinged upon them. In 1815, not long before Waterloo he pointed out to the diarist Thomas Creevey a British soldier walking through a Brussels park. "It all depends upon that article there," he said. "Give me enough of it and I am sure."

Social values and educational standards have changed, but the Duke’s emphasis on the importance of the individual has a clear resonance into our own age.

About the author

Richard Holmes is professor of military and security studies at Cranfield University. His books include The Little Field Marshal: Sir John French and Riding the Retreat, and he is general editor of The Oxford Companion to Military History. He enlisted into the Territorial Army in 1965 and rose to the rank of brigadier. He was the first reservist to hold the post of Director of Reserve Forces and Cadets in the Ministry of Defence, until he retired in 2000.

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Published: 2005-03-01



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