On November 20, 1917, at the Battle of Cambrai, a new technology was used successfully for the first time. In a plan conceived by a young British staff officer named J. F. C. Fuller, hundreds of tanks advanced on astonished German trenches. The gains of the British Army were soon lost, but within the year Fuller had planned the tank operations at the Battle of Amiens. There, British tanks broke through the German lines and were followed by Allied infantry, who held the ground thus taken. The Battle of Amiens ended the stalemate of trench warfare and led to the end of the First World War.
After the war, through command of an experimental mechanized brigade, in books, and in journalism (often in collaboration with the British military historian Sir Basil Liddell Hart), Fuller urged the British Army to prepare for a different kind of war. Fuller believed that tanks should be used in concentrated formations for their shocking capacity to penetrate the enemy’s defenses. But the British General Staff thought tanks should be used in support of infantry–despite the successes at Cambrai and Amiens, where they had led the advances.
Yet if Fuller and Liddell Hart were unappreciated at home, they found an audience abroad in one imaginative officer, Heinz Wilhelm Guderian, who translated their work into German and agitated for the adoption of their ideas by the Wehrmacht.
In his autobiography, Panzer Leader, Guderian wrote that in 1929, “I became convinced that tanks working on their own or in conjunction with infantry could never achieve decisive importance. … What was needed were armored divisions which would include the supporting arms needed to allow the tanks to fight with full effect.” He got his way: starting in May 1940, Guderian led a German armored corps in its blitzkrieg (“lightning war”) through the Ardennes forest, a campaign that ended with the fall of France and the evacuation of the British Army at Dunkirk.
Guderian was 51 in 1940, but he had preserved a quality of mind that seems to atrophy in many of us as we grow older: the capacity to be unconfounded by new technologies. Guderian was not merely an enthusiast of the new technology of tanks. He did without resistance what Fuller had unsuccessfully entreated his own generals to do: think creatively about how they might be used.
In “A Technology Surges”, David Talbot provides a modern analogue in his account of a new military intelligence network called TIGR (or Tactical Ground Reporting System). Developed by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, TIGR is a “map-centric application that junior officers can study before going on patrol and add to upon returning.” It is part of a broader effort the military calls “network-centric warfare,” in which information is swiftly relayed to soldiers. TIGR is popular with junior officers because it allows them to exchange information in a way that recalls the “peer production” common to wikis, rather than relying on whatever information a battalion intelligence officer chooses to disseminate. Yet as John Arquilla, a professor of defense analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School and a leading proponent of network organization in the military, writes in “Network Warfare”, “These technologies are wonders, but generally they have not been accompanied by shifts in military doctrine and organization. … New organizational forms and practices must develop along with new tools.”