The First World War

A Centennial Commemoration

More on this Topic

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]

Rights & Permissions

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

or subscribe to access other articles from the July 2014 publication.
Digital Issue $5.99
Digital Issue + Subscription $39.99 Subscribe
Share this Article:


You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

Starting Thanksgiving

Enter code: HOLIDAY 2015
at checkout

Get 20% off now! >


Email this Article