In 1905 prosperity and progress boosted the mood in the U.S. and much of western Europe. The treaty concluding the war by the victorious Japanese against the hapless Russians led to this sentiment by the editors of Scientific American: “It is entirely possible that the signing of the Treaty of Portsmouth marked the close of the last great war to be waged between civilized powers.” [December 16, 1905, p. 474]

Something, obviously, went terribly wrong: Nine years later the disaster now called World War I broke out. By the time of the Armistice, 10 million soldiers had been killed and five million civilians had died; people, populations and towns were permanently scarred.

The past century has seen a flood of opinions on who was at fault, why it happened and whether it was worth it. There are some interesting perspectives from Scientific American as a primary source. The magazine has been around since 1845, and from 1914 to 1918 our editors followed, keenly, some of the social, economic and technological aspects of the “deadly game of grandmother’s footsteps” (as the modern historian Max Hastings puts it) that led up to the war and played out during the conflict, from the front lines to the home front. The writers in the magazine enjoyed great access to all sides until the U.S. joined in on the Allied side in 1917. But wartime censorship was strict: for instance, there are many articles on hospital care and medical advances for patients, but there is never any mention of casualties.

Before war broke out there was much speculation about untested weaponry, specifically whether a technological leap could nullify the perceived advantage held by an unfriendly country. One good example from 1913, one year before war was declared, “Aerial Battleships and Flying Torpedo Boats,” tried to compare the impressive heavily armed German Zeppelins with swift French airplanes [SA Supplement, July 19, 1913, p. 35]. Another line of thought saw a distinct German advantage in being able to fly over the much-vaunted British Royal Navy and drop bombs on England. (Later experience showed that large, cumbersome airships, filled with flammable hydrogen, were highly vulnerable to weather and new varieties of incendiary ammunition.) The belief that a new weapon might prove to be decisive may have led leaders to conclude that victory was easier to achieve. But as Christopher Clark, another modern historian, points out, “we need to distinguish between the objective factors acting on the decision-makers and the stories they told themselves and each other.”

The political crisis in Europe that followed the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, on June 28, 1914, in Sarajevo received no notice in the pages of Scientific American. When Germany declared war on Russia (August 1) and France (August 3) and invaded Belgium (August 4), catapulting a somewhat reluctant Britain into the fight, the magazine weighed in: “It is very difficult for the American to realize that the great European war, which has been dreaded for a generation, is actually taking place. The calamity is so appalling that it seems to stretch beyond the reach of the imagination” [August 15, 1914].

On the front between Russia, Germany and Austria–Hungary battles ranged over wide terrain. On the front between France, western Belgium and Germany the battlefield quickly turned into a deadlock. In a static battle in 1914 the defender had the advantage of being able to fire machine guns and rifles from trenches sitting behind barbed wire entanglements that slowed (or stopped) attacking infantry troops. With the technology available until late 1916 the standard method of attacking such defenses was with an artillery bombardment followed by attacks by massed infantry, which were astonishingly costly in soldiers’ lives—mostly for the attacker—but also for the defender who usually felt compelled to regain lost ground as quickly as possible. The key to victory for the attacker was initially seen as increasing the quantity of shells fired and the number of troops used in the fight. Defense emphasized more barbed wire, more machine guns, deeper dugouts and more artillery to disrupt a developing attack.

Two Austrian artillerymen with a 30.5-centimeter shell fired by the Skoda-made howitzer, 1915. Credit: Scientific American, April 17, 1915

In November 1914 a battle between German troops and newly arrived troops from India led to this comment in their semiofficial history from 1917, The Indian Corps in France (J.W.B. Merewether and Frederick Smith): “The chief lesson learnt from the action was the vital necessity for more guns, more high explosives, more machine guns, more bombs and grenades.” The Germans adopted a name for this kind of warfare: Materialschlacht, literally “material warfare.” Here was an early hint that the war, stalemated into two opposing lines of trenches across France and Flanders, would be a war of industrial output. On April 1, 1916, we published an opinion from the U.S. Naval Consulting Board that the war had “very largely settled down to a question as to which of two combatant nations can fastest and for the greatest length of time feed the necessary supply of munitions to the men on the fighting line.” [April 1, 1916]

The First World War was a war of mass production. The U.S. Civil War introduced the machine gun, but during the entire war there may have been fewer than 100 machine guns of different designs in use, including perhaps 23 Gatling guns. In World War I there may have been upward of one million machine guns manufactured. Artillery, though, was king of the battlefield: Most casualties were caused by shell fire. Over 700 million artillery shells were fired during the war. The countermove from the science of defense was to dig deeper into the earth. One calculation claims it took 329 shells to wound an opponent sheltering in a trench, four times that to kill him. [Enduring the Great War: Combat, Morale and Collapse in the German and British armies, 1914–1918, by Alexander Watson, Cambridge University Press, 2008]

Yet even with armaments occupying a larger and larger share of national production, the deadlock persisted. C. S. Forester in his 1936 novel The General unkindly and rather inaccurately compared the protagonists with savages trying to pull a screw out of a piece of wood by using larger and larger levers. The problem with the analogy is that both sides in the war were desperately trying to find a way of turning the screw.

Wartime Innovation
Science and technology provided one possible way out of the deadlock. The Germans first used toxic chlorine gas on a large scale in April 1915, initially with great effect. We noted J.B.S. Haldane’s assessment of the gases as “brutally barbarous” [June 12, 1915] but gas masks were quickly developed, manufactured and shipped. As the war progressed, both sides developed and deployed ever more lethal forms of poison gas, with the science of respirators almost keeping up with the chemical weapons. Perhaps 1 percent of military deaths from the war were due to gas—Michael Duffy on says about 90,000 died. But many more were wounded, taxing medical resources and leaving a strong impression on soldiers on the front line. Gas had an outsize psychological effect on those who witnessed it. The most horrific poem to come out of the war, written by Wilfred Owen, is about a gas casualty: “If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood/ Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs.” For the generals charged with the duty to win the war, gas was useful because it had a material effect on men (and horses). Even though the use of gas against troops supplied with gas masks caused comparatively few casualties, soldiers could not operate as quickly and effectively while wearing the clumsy protection: The task of drawing a breath past the filters required effort, and any great muscular exertion—for instance carrying boxes of ammunition through clinging mud—became a torturously slow affair. The first gas was deployed from canisters; the next technological step saw it loaded into shells and fired by artillery far across the front line trenches. Propaganda frequently condemned the use of poison gas by the enemy, but on the Western Front all sides used it often.

The airplane was an invention barely a decade old, and it quickly proved highly valuable in the reconnaissance role. As the war progressed, we tracked the development of faster and more reliable airplanes wielding cameras, shotguns and machine guns. The armed fighter plane became a fixture over the battlefield, where air superiority translated into the ability to control the flow of information to military commanders. Huge bombers were developed later in the war. Certainly their potential was recognized: “The tremendous possibilities of destructive warfare and the very great material and moral damage bombing machines may accomplish.” But it is possible that the greater part of the effect was as a morale booster for the attacking force: “The start of an American bombing squadron from the French front on a raid into German territory was a spectacle to stir the enthusiasm of any American and inspire him with an appreciation of Uncle Sam's rapidly growing strength in the air” [December 7, 1918]. A relatively small bomb load and inaccurate targeting meant that airplanes were not significant for decades. Later in the war the airplane and spotting balloon coordinating with artillery became a truly formidable weapon when the eyes of the pilot (or lens of the camera) gave accuracy to the weight of shell fire.

An early aerial duel between opposing aircraft: The pilots are firing pistols at each other, 1915. Credit: Scientific American, January 9, 1915

Barbed wire—dense thickets of it, not the polite strands used by farmers—was used on a massive scale where terrain and territory favored static warfare. But an attacker could go under the barbed wire if he had patience and time: Mining under the enemy’s defenses was carried out on a wide scale by all sides [June 9, 1917, cover & p. 579], occasionally with astounding success. The tunnels under Messines Ridge took 18 months to build; when 19 underground mines were detonated under the German lines, 10,000 soldiers lost their lives. By the end of the war, tanks (light and heavy) were quite capable of going through or over wire entanglements, finally ending the defensive advantage of barbed wire.

Battlefield communication at the beginning of the war was by telephone wire, runner and carrier pigeon. These were supplemented as the war went on with more robust telephone networks and later, wireless (now called “radio”). Other technology supported the war effort. Transport by railway had been envisioned as one of the keys to victory even well before war broke out. Christopher Clark in The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 details how civilian railway systems constructed in the years leading up to the war were also seen as a military weapon. The enhanced railways developed in Russia and Serbia (financed by French loans) improved the speed with which men and weapons could be moved for attack or defense. Horses were a prime source of transport during the war: There were some two million horses and mules employed on the Western Front with their own supplies, care and medical needs. Gasoline-powered vehicles were not so reliable and they required complex supply chains of fuel and manufactured spare parts. As the vehicles became more numerous and their supply chains became more reliable, they carried a much larger amount of men and matériel as the war went on, particularly after the U.S. became involved. It is difficult to quantify what effect the quality and quantity of transport technology had on lives saved or battles won, but according to Scientific American the winning side produced and used vast quantities of it.

The submarine was not such a new invention but the technology proceeded by leaps and bounds. Wielding newly developed torpedoes and mines it became the preeminent naval weapon on the German side. Although the Germans were wary of directly challenging the British Royal Navy, supplies were the chink in the Allied Powers’ armor. Finished products, raw materials for manufacturing and food were desperately needed by France, Russia, Britain and Italy, and much cargo had to be carried by sea, where during the war 5,000 ships—almost all civilian—were lost to torpedoes, mines or gunfire from U-boats. In concert with the fear of U-boats was a series of articles on the technological advances and industrial capacity for building ships for the “U-boat zone” (ships made from concrete and wood included). Articles on submarine hunting and sinking were also popular but under wartime censorship may have served as more of a propaganda role; for instance, news of the “hush” ships, fast aircraft carriers used for antisubmarine work, came out only after the end of the war [December 21, 1918].

Tanks were first used in battle in September 1916 in the Battle of Flers-Courcelette on the Western Front. There was some skepticism about using them—the earliest models were slow and mechanically unreliable. Only 36 tanks reached the starting point of their attack—but once in battle they inflicted enough damage, however, that 1,000 more were quickly ordered. News of these weapons was strictly controlled. They were introduced to our readers thus: “Strange tales are coming to us from the battlefields of northern France. We would almost believe the our old friend Baron Münchausen had come to life...” [September 30, 1916]. By the end of the war, fleets of efficient reliable tanks using newly developed methods of working in close cooperation with troops, aircraft and artillery broke the deadlock of trench warfare.

The interior of a French tank, 1917. Credit: Scientific American, August 4, 1917

An assessment of how important science and technology were to the war effort—military and industrial—comes from as early as 1916: “That which science has especially gained from the war is prestige. Neglect of science in certain quarters has brought such retribution to the negligent ones that the lesson will probably never need to be repeated. This is true not only of science as applicable to military purposes, but also of science as applicable to industry.” [June 17, 1916]

America Gets Involved
As the war progressed, the shift in the American attitude can be traced in our pages. The U.S. was officially neutral until 1917. There are several mentions of the “great European war” and the magazine decried “Europe’s mad carnage” [September 23, 1916] but generally the problem was not seen as one that the U.S. had the duty to fix. Still, there seems to be no doubt that our sympathies lay with invaded Belgium and France and their allies, Russia and Britain: We referred to “The Teutonic attempt to establish that military dictatorship of Europe which was the ill-fated dream of Napoleon” [October 3, 1914] and mentioned the “Kaiser’s hordes” [July 17, 1915]. The sensibilities of the editors were greatly offended by a novel kind of warfare—air raids on civilian populations by Zeppelins or airplanes: “raids which by the murder of noncombatants and the destruction of private property may strike terror into the inhabitants of a country.” [April 17, 1915]

On May 7, 1915, the war changed for America. The RMS Lusitania, a civilian liner, was torpedoed off the coast of Ireland with the loss of 1,198 lives, including 128 Americans. The Germans believed (with good reason) that the ship was bringing in munitions for the Allied war effort and so was a legitimate target. Whatever the propaganda and counterclaims, the end result was that the U.S. was outraged that Germany had killed 128 of its citizens: “Has this ceased to be a war of army against army and degenerated into a war against civilians and women and children, no matter of what nationality?” [May 15, 1915]. Even a year after the sinking we mentioned the “wholesale Lusitania murder.” Indeed, reading through the issues of 1916 and 1917 it is clear that U-boat warfare created a palpable fear in this country: “the pivotal point upon which depends the issue of victory or defeat” [June 2, 1917]. The Germans believed submarine warfare was justified. They saw themselves waging a war against a supposedly neutral country freely supplying their enemies with means to continue fighting while simultaneously choking off supplies for German civilians and the military. In any event, the U-boat campaign was certainly one reason the U.S. declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917.

America had a tiny army in 1917 but it did have factories, a lot of them, and these swung into high gear producing weapons and food for America’s allies, and ships and trucks for moving men and matériel. The pace of all war-related production, particularly in shipping, became frenetic: “The Shipping Board is very busy—so busy that emblazoned on its banner is the admonition of Dr. Jewett—"Don't apologize, don't explain; let 'em holler, GET IT DONE !"”[April 6, 1918]. Scientific American joined in the war effort to push the issue: “It is for press and public to help now” [April 6, 1918]. The industrial landscape changed dramatically in the year and a half that America was at war. The meaning of the phrase “total war” becomes clearer, and a little unsettling, when you can read how every aspect of society and the economy was considered in the light of the war needs. Even food became a weapon in the war against the Central Powers: “It is a military necessity that each acre produce the maximum of human food” [August 10, 1918].

The massive expansion of manpower needs across the globe drained men from their normal employment and encouraged women to work in jobs where previously only men had worked. It was not unusual to see women working as farmers in Europe, in factories in America or as trolley conductors in Germany [July 3, 1915]. An editorial in the December 14, 1918, issue noted, “In nearly every line of work where women have been employed to relieve the labor shortage they have proved themselves as careful and painstaking as the men.” Yet at the same time, this sea change was seen as temporary. As soon as the war ended and troops began returning home our Washington correspondent looked with concern on the men about to be demobilized and subtitled his article “Getting the Jobless Man and the Manless Job Together” [December 21, 1918]. If this article seems to callously shrug off the service of the many women who worked hard for lower wages than their male co-workers in factories and offices, the social change occasioned by an influx of women to the workforce had not necessarily been a welcome one. Philip Gibbs, a war journalist who wrote Now it Can Be Told in 1920, right after the war, had this very critical comment on the upheavals to the social order: “The painted flapper was making herself sick with the sweets of life after office hours in government employ, where she did little work for a lot of pocket money.” One lasting result of the wartime disruption, though, was that women demanded a greater share in society: Voting rights were extended to women in Germany in 1918, the U.S. in 1920 and the U.K. in 1928. (It took another world war for French women to get those rights).

English women driving American tractors at night, plowing fields by electric light. Credit: Scientific American, April 13, 1918

The end of the war came as no surprise. By August 1918 America had 1.5 million troops in France and supplies pouring in for the Allies. Their armies were well-supplied with trucks, railway locomotives, airplanes, boots, field kitchens (and field bakeries for the Yanks), medical equipment, construction machines, tanks, radios, generators, machine guns, howitzers and shells, shells and more shells. The mass of men and supplies more than compensated for Russia’s early exit from the war after the Bolsheviks co-opted a revolution that had disposed of the Russian monarchy. The Germans and Austro–Hungarians had been fighting for four years and were running low on manpower and food at home. Germany in 1917 devoted a vast proportion—53 percent—of her net national product to military purposes. Military spending in the U.S. only rose to 13 percent of NNP by 1918; in this total war the Allies had the huge advantage of more population and larger economies, large proportions of which were co-opted by governments for wartime use. In the last phase of the war the Hundred Days Offensive drove the Germans out of France. The Armistice between the Allies and Germany took effect on November 11, at 11 A.M., a week after a disintegrating Austria–Hungary had given up.

Yet already the next horror visited on mankind was making an appearance. Medical officers for all the belligerents noted outbreaks of influenza among their troops. In the U.S. Army in France, Lieut. Samuel Bradbury (the author’s grandfather), noted an outbreak of flu in May and July 1918 and commented on the “explosive nature of the epidemic” [The American Journal of the Medical Sciences, Vol. 156, 1918]. The October 19, 1918, SA Supplement carried a report from the July meeting of the Munich Medical Union noting the hallmark of the pandemic now being called “Spanish Influenza”: “persons under 30 years of age mainly fall victims to the disease.” By the end of 1919, 50 million people had died of the malady, a tragedy overshadowing the loss of military and civilian lives in the war. [The figure of 50 million comes from Jeffery K. Taubenberger (who has also written for Scientific American on influenza) and David M. Morens in Emerging Infection Diseases, January 2006.]

Why does First World War I still haunt us? Perhaps because the moral ambiguity of the conflagration keeps us from the certainty of an answer to the question “Whose fault was it?” and “Was it worth it?” U.S. President Woodrow Wilson famously said that it was a “war to end all wars.” The Victory Medal handed out to British, American and other Allied troops has, cast in bronze (or rather stamped) the phrase: “The Great War for Civilization.” Yet not only does the war seem to have been none of the above, another awful irony is that the children of that war went on to fight and die in larger numbers in the Second World War 20 years later.

Update on mediaeval warfare, 1917: French sappers use a stethoscope to listen for sounds of Germans mining or countermining under French trenches. Credit: Scientific American, June 9, 1917

The last surviving veteran of World War I, Florence Green of England, who served on an air base in the Women’s Royal Air Force, died in 2012. Is it time to put the past behind us? Not yet: the war was one of the most significant human-caused events, and the world today looks the way it does because of the Great War. Continued study of every aspect of the puzzle of that calamity can help us unravel the complexity of human society.