‘The Land Ironclads’ is one of the most prophetic short stories by H. G. Wells (1866-1946), a writer who made more than his fair share of accurate prophecies. First published in Strand magazine in December 1903, the story anticipated the invention of the tank in modern warfare some thirteen years before the first tanks were deployed.
The basic plot of the story can be summarised easily enough. There is a war between two unidentified armies, neither of which can gain ground on the other. Trench warfare has reached a stalemate. A young lieutenant and a war correspondent discuss the state of the conflict.
It emerges that one army has riflemen trained to shoot from horseback. These men are the better soldiers, but the opposing army has a superior new technology: the ‘land ironclads’ of the story’s title. The term ‘ironclad’ was already in use, but it described a type of warship (essentially, steamships fortified by iron or steel), hence Wells’s qualifying term ‘land’ ironclad. These are armoured ships that can be used on land: the fictional forerunner to the modern tank.
Thirteen land ironclads end up overwhelming the opposing army, which manages to ‘break up’ one of the machines. Wells describes these monstrous inventions towards the end of the story:
They were essentially long, narrow, and very strong steel frameworks carrying the engines, and borne upon eight pairs of big pedrail wheels, each about ten feet in diameter, each a driving wheel and set upon long axles free to swivel round a common axis. This arrangement gave them the maximum of adaptability to the contours of the ground. They crawled level along the ground with one foot high upon a hillock and another deep in a depression, and they could hold themselves erect and steady sideways upon even a steep hillside.
These crawling structures can house engineers who steer them, and the men inside have the ability look out at the enemy from within the ironclad:
The engineers directed the engines under the command of the captain, who had look-out points at small ports all round the upper edge of the adjustable skirt of twelve-inch iron-plating which protected the whole affair, and could also raise or depress a conning-tower set about the portholes through the centre of the iron top cover. The riflemen each occupied a small cabin of peculiar construction and these cabins were slung along the sides of and before and behind the great main framework, in a manner suggestive of the slinging of the seats of an Irish jaunting-car.
Their rifles are superior to the simple mechanisms used by their adversaries, too: they are automatic.
Although Wells’s description of armoured vehicles in ‘The Land Ironclads’ clearly anticipates the introduction of tanks during the First World War, not all of his details exactly match those of the tank. For instance, whereas tanks use caterpillar tread, Wells’s land ironclads use something Wells called ‘Pedrails’, a form of locomotion invented just four years earlier, in 1899, by the English inventor Bramah Joseph Diplock.
However, Wells foresaw the basic concept, even if the name adopted for such vehicles would not be ‘land ironclads’ but ‘tanks’. That name, by the way, came from British attempts to keep the development of the new vehicles secret, so they were called ‘tanks’ so that people would believe they were water tanks for storing and carrying water. The First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, established the Landships Committee in early 1915, and tanks made their first appearance a year later. Even the title of the committee recalls Wells’s ‘Land Ironclads’.