World History 2 177 - 11.3.1 The Unending Horror of War

Military technology had changed greatly by the beginning of the twentieth century, and these changes were not often understood or appreciated by either soldiers or commanders when the war broke out. The recent spread of industrialization meant that more weapons with greater firepower could now be turned out of factories. Just as the guns of the naval arms race had quickly increased in scope and power, the introduction of machine guns, long-range artillery guns, aircraft, and submarines revolutionized warfare in World War I.

Artillery was one clear example of the way warfare had changed. In the 1800s, cannons were moved by horses. In World War I, however, some long-range artillery could be moved only by rail, and in some cases, railroads even had to be specially built due to the weight of the guns. Artillery became a key tool for fighting the war. The German arms manufacturer Krupp unveiled new artillery throughout the war, each time offering greater firepower, but its “Big Bertha,” a 420-mm howitzer, was used extensively from the beginning of the war to its conclusion. In 1918, the Germans began using the so-called Paris Gun to shell the French capital. While its payload was not overly large, this piece of artillery could fire over a distance of eighty miles, propelling a missile into the stratosphere before it came back to earth. Most battlefield casualties in World War I were the result of artillery fire.

The power of machine guns, first seen at the turn of the century in the Boer War, also completely changed the battlefield experience in total war. Many of the machine guns of World War I were based on a design unveiled by inventor Hiram Maxim in 1884. They could fire four to six hundred rounds per minute, utterly transforming what an infantry attack looked like. It was this mechanized weaponry that caused the horrific injuries and mass casualties suffered during the war. A soldier courageously running across a field against an enemy was now undertaking a suicide mission. Barbed wire also became a common sight, strewn across the no-man’s-land between the opposing sides’ frontline trenches. It snagged and caught troops as they advanced, slowing them down as they used wire cutters to break through and making them an easy target for machine gun nests on the opposite side.

Poison gas, outlawed worldwide today, was employed as an instrument of war by all sides, first by German troops fighting Russian units in 1914. Different types of gas were used. Chlorine gas with its greenish hue appeared early in the war, thick and heavy mustard gas came later, and phosgene was used throughout the combat. Mustard gas could burn the eyes, nose, and skin with injuries that took weeks to heal; for the unlucky, it could cause permanent blindness and lifelong respiratory problems, and sometimes death. Phosgene gas was colorless and could be more immediately deadly, through symptoms might not appear for many hours. Historians estimate that 85 percent of deaths from gassing were due to the effects of phosgene.

By the midpoint of the war, gas masks had become a regular part of a soldier’s kit. When a call of “Gas!” went out, soldiers would quickly don them, though they were tight and severely narrowed the wearer’s range of vision. Soldiers came to fear gas attacks more than any other kind. The prospect of not being able to see your enemy was unnerving, and the gas might not even be noticed until the first few soldiers collapsed from it.

Flamethrowers were employed by both sides as well but were first introduced by Germany, with substantial use beginning in 1915. These were intended to spur enemy soldiers out of their trenches in a battle. The most effective flamethrowers were mobile ones carried by individual soldiers. Their effect was also psychological, much like that of poison gas.

In 1916, the British unveiled a new invention to support their infantry—the tank (Figure 11.12). Early tanks showed promise in that they made large artillery mobile and could travel with advancing infantry, which could help end trench warfare. However, they often malfunctioned and got stuck in the mud too easily. Commanders at first did not fully understand what a boon to the infantry tanks could be, but in the ensuing years they learned.

The photograph shows a tank. Several soldiers sand nearby in a trench nearby.
Figure 11.12 This photo is of an early British tank in the fall of 1916. It was probably being held in reserve for the Battle of the Somme. (credit: modification of work “British Mark I male tank Somme 25 September 1916” by Imperial War Museums/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

On the sea, the submarine debuted in World War I and heralded a new age of naval combat. Its stealth was its biggest tactical advantage; it could sneak up on unsuspecting vessels and fire a torpedo that would sink them. The German navy called its subs Unterseeboots or U-boats and focused on expanding this part of its fleet during the war. U-boats were seldom submerged because the batteries on which they ran would not allow them to stay underwater for too long. In the early months of the war, German submarines warned ships before sinking them so that the crew could abandon ship, as was the custom in naval warfare. However, after German submarines were destroyed by armed British merchant ships when they made their presence known, they began to attack without firing any warning shot or allowing the crew on the targeted ship to abandon it. This was used by the Allies as evidence that Germany was a crueler foe than other nations. By 1917, German U-boats “had destroyed about thirty percent of the world’s merchant ships.”

All combatant armies used aircraft for reconnaissance purposes, and pilots soon began engaging one another in aerial “dogfights.” Skilled pilots who were able to shoot down enemy planes became known as “aces.” They kept track of their kills and were heralded for their bravery. The sky was one of the few arenas where skill and courage could make a difference in a confrontation with the enemy.

The use of all these weapons to wage war on an industrial scale meant soldiers suffered more in this war than in past conflicts. The number of casualties was immense. Approximately nine hundred French soldiers died every day on the western front. Even more German soldiers died each day. The need to care for the wounded was also enormous. Huge numbers of doctors, nurses, and stretcher-bearers were needed to get them safely from the battlefields and trenches to medical care. Medical science had improved significantly, leading to a much greater understanding of infection, and new technologies such as the x-ray made care far superior to what soldiers could expect in the 1800s. Soldiers could now survive their wounds, but they then faced a number of problems earlier generations had never experienced. Some needed plastic surgery to repair broken or blown-away bones or metal masks to hide them, and when repairs to arms or legs were not possible, amputation might leave a soldier facing the future with prosthetic limbs.

Physical wounds were fairly straightforward for doctors and nurses to tackle. The psychological wounds were much more problematic. Never before had so many people been subjected to such intense bombardment as in the trenches and battles of World War I. Doctors began diagnosing cases of “shell shock” early in the war, a diagnosis not new but newly named because it was thought to have been brought on by the intense shelling that accompanied the war. However, medical science later learned that it was the intense psychological pressures on the soldiers rather than the shelling itself that caused the condition. Shell shock went by other names in later wars, such as battle fatigue and, today, post-traumatic stress disorder. Some symptoms were mild, like a shaking hand or constant twitch. Others were more serious, including flashbacks to battle, inability to speak, loss of contact with reality, or fear of any unexpected sound. Those dealing with shell shock often had to be sent to hospitals far from the frontlines, and recovery was exceedingly slow as psychologists tried to help them reenter peacetime society.

In Their Own Words

A Poet’s View of War

Siegfried Sassoon was an English poet who rose to the rank of captain while serving in World War I. In his poetry, he described the horrors of the battlefield and critiqued those he saw as responsible for the war. “Counter-Attack” describes the experience of combat for an ordinary soldier on the day of a counterattack. Allemands (literally, the Germans) refers to the opposing German forces.

We’d gained our first objective hours before
While dawn broke like a face with blinking eyes,
Pallid, unshaven and thirsty, blind with smoke.
Things seemed all right at first. We held their line,
With bombers posted, Lewis guns well placed,
And clink of shovels deepening the shallow trench.
The place was rotten with dead; green clumsy legs
High-booted, sprawled and grovelled along the saps
And trunks, face downward, in the sucking mud,
Wallowed like trodden sand-bags loosely filled;
And naked sodden buttocks, mats of hair,
Bulged, clotted heads slept in the plastering slime.
And then the rain began,—the jolly old rain!

A yawning soldier knelt against the bank,
Staring across the morning blear with fog;
He wondered when the Allemands would get busy;
And then, of course, they started with five-nines
Traversing, sure as fate, and never a dud.
Mute in the clamour of shells he watched them burst
Spouting dark earth and wire with gusts from hell,
While posturing giants dissolved in drifts of smoke.
He crouched and flinched, dizzy with galloping fear,
Sick for escape,—loathing the strangled horror
And butchered, frantic gestures of the dead.

An officer came blundering down the trench:
“Stand-to and man the fire step!” On he went . . .
Gasping and bawling, “Fire-step . . . counter-attack!”
Then the haze lifted. Bombing on the right
Down the old sap: machine-guns on the left;
And stumbling figures looming out in front.
“O Christ, they’re coming at us!” Bullets spat,
And he remembered his rifle . . . rapid fire . . .
And started blazing wildly . . . then a bang
Crumpled and spun him sideways, knocked him out
To grunt and wriggle: none heeded him; he choked
And fought the flapping veils of smothering gloom,
Lost in a blurred confusion of yells and groans . . .
Down, and down, and down, he sank and drowned,
Bleeding to death. The counter-attack had failed.

—Siegfried Sassoon, “Counter-Attack

  • How does Sassoon perceive war? Does he think it is heroic? Why or why not?
  • How does Sassoon believe soldiers are treated in the war?

New military technology plus armies consisting of millions of troops meant battles were no longer quick. They would rage for months and exact a devastating toll of human life. In February 1916, for example, the Battle of Verdun began. The Germans intended this battle to take out as many French troops as possible, to make “France bleed,” as German General Erich von Falkenhayn stated. They chose Verdun because it had great historical and cultural significance to the French nation, and France would do anything to protect it. Only one long road ran into the city, and the French were forced to bring hundreds of thousands of troops and supplies along it. The battle raged from February to December. France managed to stave off the German attacks but suffered approximately 450,000 casualties, and Germany about 300,000.

The British and the Germans had their own battle of attrition along the Somme River. Starting on July 1, 1916, the Battle of the Somme began with British infantry charges that caused tens of thousands of deaths on the first day alone. Britain continued to launch offensives as the Germans rebuilt their line slightly farther back. British commanders finally called an end to the battle in November, unable to break the German line and having advanced only a handful of miles. By the time it ended, total casualties from both sides totaled a million.

As the land war droned on, the power of the submarine was being starkly demonstrated on the high seas. In May 1915, the RMS Lusitania, a passenger liner owned by Cunard, was sailing from New York City to Liverpool. Unbeknownst to the passengers, the British owners of the ship had chosen to transport four million rounds of ammunition in the cargo hold during the return voyage to Britain. The German government learned of this plan and had previously announced that any ship carrying military weapons or equipment was subject to being sunk. This threat put the Lusitania in the cross-hairs of the German submarines. Off the coast of Ireland on May 7, a German sub torpedoed the liner, which sank in about twenty minutes. More than twelve hundred people died in the chilly waters, including 128 U.S. citizens.

The outcry was immediate. Early news reports focused on the fact that civilians and families had been on board an unarmed passenger ship, again casting Germany as a violator of the norms of warfare. In the United States, however, the public frustration did not result in a push for war with Germany. While aware of what the war was like via the uncensored news stories in the American media, most still felt it was better not to get involved.

Their focus on a naval arms race before the war did not result in many battles between the surface fleets of Britain and Germany. In fact, there was only one major naval engagement, the Battle of Jutland, fought in 1916 by about 250 ships. Both sides sank or damaged many enemy craft, and both claimed a win, though no decisive victory was gained by either. The German navy, however, never again dared to confront the British navy.

It was truly with submarines that naval warfare was fought in World War I. Through 1915 and 1916, German submarines continued to patrol the war zones off the coasts of Britain and France, sinking an increasing number of vessels. In 1916, German submarines torpedoed the Sussex, a civilian ferry, and several U.S. citizens were killed. This provoked outrage in the United States, and President Wilson demanded apologies and restitution. Germany responded by apologizing and agreeing to only engage in restricted submarine warfare. That is, German submarines would not target U.S. ships and would endeavor not to fire on ships that had U.S. citizens on board. Implementing such restrictions was impossible, however. Theoretically, Germany would have to have had all U.S. citizens leave a ship before torpedoing it.

The compromise did allow the United States to remain neutral even as tensions mounted. But in 1917, the terms changed. Germany announced in January of that year that it would engage in unrestricted submarine warfare. This meant that any ship in a war zone was a target for sinking even if it were sailing under the flag of a neutral power, so U.S. merchant ships were now subject to being torpedoed.

Germany made this decision because it felt that Britain would be forced to pull out of the war if the lifeline of cargo coming to it from the United States were cut off. Germany had suffered food shortages beginning in 1915. By 1917, as a result of the British blockade and the enlistment of male farm laborers for war, the nation’s urban population was starving, and its troops were on reduced rations. Unless Britain withdrew from the war soon, Germany would be forced to surrender. Obviously, Germany knew this decision would anger the United States and could well cause it to enter the war itself, but it was a gamble its leaders were prepared to take. They fully believed that Germany could achieve victory if it could force the British to surrender before the United States could enter the war.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax