The First World War

A Centennial Commemoration

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]

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This article was originally published with the title "Centennial of a Calamity."

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