After two years of war the massive number of casualties was no longer a secret to any thinking civilian or soldier, and few still expected an easy or quick resolution to the conflict. Governments had become desperate for manpower, armaments and military supplies of all kinds. Significant portions of the population, as well as industrial and agricultural production, had been shifted over to war work.
In a search for victory, science and technology was pressed into service, and 1916 saw the first use of tanks in warfare as well as widely expanded use of chemical weapons, flamethrowers, and the airplane in a wide variety of roles on land and sea. Transport and communication still relied on horses and pigeons and signal flags even as motor vehicles, telegraph, telephone became the new norm. Radio, used in shipping, was finally becoming more portable and being installed in airplanes.
If there is any theme that emerges from this turbulent age, it is that necessity was very much the mother of invention. Those people who were tasked with achieving victory in a ghastly situation were forced to became adept at improvising, inventing and muddling through as best as the crisis allowed them to.
You can see some of the desperation and inventiveness as you pore through these slides and you can also delve into the history of science in the service of war from 1845 to now at scientificamerican.com/magazine/sa
This article was originally published with the title "The Year 1916 in the Great War" in Scientific American 315, 4, (October 2016)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)
Dan Schlenoff edits the "50, 100 & 150 Years Ago" column for Scientific American. He is a keen student of the role of science in history.