The Land Ironclads
"The Land Ironclads" is a short story by H.G. Wells that originally appeared in the December 1903 issue of the Strand Magazine. It features "land ironclads," 100-foot-long (30 m) machines that are equipped with remote-controlled guns and that carry riflemen, engineers, and a captain. (The term "ironclad" was coined in the mid-19th century for steam-propelled warships protected by iron or steel armour plates.) The land ironclads are described as "essentially long, narrow, and very strong steel frameworks carrying the engines, and borne on eight pairs of big pedrail wheels, each about ten feet in diameter, each a driving wheel and set upon long axles free to swivel around a common axis. . . . the captain . . . had look-out points at small ports all round the upper edge of the adjustable skirt of twelve-inch ironplating which protected the whole affair, and . . . could also raise or depress a conning-tower set above the port-holes through the center of the iron top cover." Riflemen are installed in cabins "slung along the sides of and behind and before the great main framework," and operate mechanically targeting automatic rifles.
The story contributed to Wells's reputation as a "prophet of the future," as the machines stimulated development of the tanks of World War I. In an 1 Oct 1916, letter to Wells, Churchill thanked him for the idea, and in a 1925 trial over who invented the tank, Winston Churchill testified under oath that the idea had originated with Wells. For contemporaries, Wells's rather sketchy battle between countrymen "defenders" who rely on cavalry and entrenched infantry and attacking townsmen carried echoes of the Boer War, as well as of his 1898 novel The War of the Worlds, which also featured a struggle between technologically uneven protagonists.
The story opens with an unnamed war correspondent and a young lieutenant surveying the calm of the battlefield and reflecting upon the war between two unidentified armies. The opponents are dug into trenches, each waiting for the other to attack, and the men on the war correspondent's side are confident they will prevail, because they are all strong outdoor-types —men who know how to use a rifle and fight—while their enemies are townspeople,"a crowd of devitalised townsmen . . . They're clerks, they're factory hands, they're students, they're civilised men. They can write, they can talk, they can make and do all sorts of things, but they're poor amateurs at war." The men agree that their "open air life" produces men better suited to war than their opponents' "decent civilization."
In the end, however, the "decent civilization," with its men of science and engineers, triumphs over the "better soldiers" who, instead of developing land ironclads of their own, had been practising shooting their rifles from horseback, a tactic rendered obsolete by the land ironclads. Wells foreshadows this eventual outcome in the conversation of the two men in the first part, when the correspondent tells the lieutenant "Civilization has science, you know, it invented and it made the rifles and guns and things you use."
The story ends with the entire army captured by fourteen land ironclads, only one of which has been disabled by the defenders. In the last scene, the correspondent compares his countrymen's "sturdy proportions with those of their lightly built captors", and thinks of the story he is going to write about the experience, noting both that the captured officers are thinking of ways they will defeat what they call the enemy's "ironmongery" with their already-existing weaponry, rather than developing their own land ironclads to counter the new threat, and also noting that the "half-dozen comparatively slender young men in blue pajamas who were standing about their victorious land ironclad, drinking coffee and eating biscuits, had also in their eyes and carriage something not altogether degraded below the level of a man."
The idea was suggested to me by the contrivances of a certain M. Diplock, whose "ped-rail" notion, the notion of a wheel that was something more than a wheel, a wheel that would take locomotives up hill-sides and across ploughed fields, was public property nearly twenty years ago.—War and the Future, H. G. Wells.
Indeed, within the story itself, the war correspondent, upon his first sight of the machine's pedrails, recalls hearing about them from Diplock in person.
According to one biographer, Wells originally got the idea for land ironclads using "pedrails" from the inventor John William Dunne, who spoke of "big fat pedrail machines" in a letter to Wells. Dunne also influenced Wells's novel The War in the Air (1908).
- H.G. Wells, "The Land Ironclads," in The Short Stories of H.G. Wells (London: Ernest Benn, 1927), pp. 131–32.
- In the first biography of Wells published after his death, Vincent Brome noted that Wells's reputation as a prophet was "one of the legends sustained by the newspaper world": "[Wells] foresaw the motor car, the tank, the aeroplaine and the atom bomb, he pictured the war in the war and he glimpsed—as no one else—a promised land as rich and full and bountiful as any vision vouchsafed Moses. But how he could blunder. London, Berlin, St. Peterburg would, he wrote, increase their populations to well over 20,000,000; and New York, Philadelphia and Chicago would probably and Hankow almost certainly reach 40,000,000. Anticipations implied that 'the struggle between any two naval powers on the high seas . . . will not last more than a week or so.' . . . In the same period he did not 'think it all probable that aeronautics will ever come into play as a serious modification of transportation and communication. . . .' As for the submarine, 'I must confess that my imagination in spite even of spurring, refuses to see any sort of submarine do anything but suffocate its crew and founder at sea.' . . . Russia at one point would never amount to more than another vaster Ireland. Paranoiac leaders like Hitler were dramatically dismissed . . . No, he was a considerable, but not after all divinely inspired prophet." H.G. Wells: A Biography (London: Longsmans, Green, 1951), pp. 235–36).
- David C. Smith, H.G. Wells: Desperately Mortal: A Biography (Yale University Press, 1986), pp. 228 & 546–47 n.22. Later, in 1940, Wells was provoked by Major-General Sir Ernest Swinton's claim in a BBC broadcast that he had invented the tank after seeing a caterpillar tractor working in field, and Swinton successfully sued Wells for defamation of character.
- King, Simon (2007). Insect Nations – Visions of the Ant World from Kropotkin to Bergson. InkerMen Press. p. 46. ISBN 978-0-9551829-7-6.
- The Land Ironclads, H. G. Wells, 1909
- Wells, H.G. (1917). War and the Future. Cassel & Co. p. 93.
- Norman and Jeanne Mackenzie, H.G. Wells: A Biography (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973), pp. 222 & 432.
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