Bronze and war

Earlier in history we had the ‘Bronze Age’; today in Britain we have the surprise of ‘Bronze’, an exhibition currently displaying at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. It has been a surprising success due in part to alerting us to how much we take for granted in everyday life all the statues and sculptures around us, shaped in such a startling variety of forms.

The exhibition notes exhaustively cover every angle that bronze can offer, including detailed explanations about the potent mixture of copper and tin that came to usher in the Bronze Age between the Stone Age and the Iron Age: but there is no word about the role of copper and bronze in warfare. Indeed it could be argued that the interaction between the need for bronze and copper not only promoted war but also modern civilisation.

To give a more up-to-date demonstration of the importance of copper, at the start of the First World War Germany relied heavily on copper from Chile for its shell casings and electrical machinery: but as the Royal Navy gradually tightened the net of their blockade around Germany resourceful methods such as alloying and electro-plating were instituted by the Germans.

In early history bronze created the first effective armour and weapons, but only a few privileged fighting men could possess these which after being moulded into shape could last forever and be restored if dented in battle.

The problem soon arose about accessing deposits of tin and copper, which sometimes lay in territory sometimes faraway from the user; if the people were ill-disposed to entering any trading alliance the answer was to make war to grab the essentials of bronze. With the domestication of the horse these raids could be extended; but it was one thing to get to a place but it was quite another to return without the risk of being cut off, so the route home had to be protected and thus the amount of manpower engaged in the raiding enterprise increased.

Copper’s next significant contribution to warfare came in the development of cannon design in the 15th century; a cannon in bronze or brass (copper with zinc) was more robust than ‘bombards’ of wrought-iron. Therefore supplies of copper, tin and zinc became vital for European rulers, and demand increased with the spread of guns into Asia. However over the next hundred years iron-casting techniques improved and thereby make substantial cost-savings in cannon manufacture by switching from bronze to iron.

The durability of bronze meant that it never completely disappeared from cannon production, with Napoleon taking full advantage of capturing the copper mines of central Europe to enable French manufacturers to produce up to 4000 guns annually.

So the place of bronze in history is assured, and in the words of William McNeill who began his highly influential book The Pursuit of Power by writing ‘in a limited sense, the industrialisation of war is almost as old as civilisation, for the introduction of bronze metallurgy made specially skilled artisans indispensable for the manufacture of weapons and armor’. Jasper Humphreys, The Marjan Centre.

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