Editor’s note (4/2/2017): This week marks the 100-year anniversary of the U.S. entry into the First World War. Scientific American, founded in 1845, spent the war years covering the monumental innovations that changed the course of history, from the first tanks and aerial combat to the first widespread attacks with chemical weapons. To mark the centennial, we are republishing the article below and many others. For full access to our archival coverage of the Great War sign up for an All Access subscription today.
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 and France and then invaded Belgium on August 4, 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].
Thereafter, the then weekly Scientific American covered the First World War as a vast, world-changing event in which science, technology and massive industrial output played key roles. The American Civil War (1861–1865) saw the first successful use of the machine gun and the submarine, but both sides manufactured fewer than 100 machine guns (including about 20 Gatlings) and 20 submarines. In World War I more than one million machine guns were churned out. Artillery became the king of the battlefield, with up to a billion artillery shells fired during the war. The countermove from the science of defense was to dig deeper into the dirt. One modern calculation says it took 329 shells to wound an opponent sheltering in a trench, four times that to kill him.
The emergence of trench warfare produced a deadlock on the Western Front. C. S. Forester in his 1936 novel The General rather unkindly compared the generals in charge with savages trying to rip 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. Science provided one way out of the deadlock.
The Germans deployed toxic chlorine gas on a large scale in April 1915; we noted J.B.S. Haldane's assessment of the technique as “brutally barbarous” [June 12, 1915]. Airplanes were a new invention, and for four years we tracked their improvements as scouts, artillery spotters, fighters and bombers. The first tanks sent into battle—36 of them at Flers-Courcelette in France in 1916—were slow and mechanically unreliable. They inflicted so much damage on the German defenses, though, that 1,000 more were quickly ordered. Continuing reports on the new weapons were strictly controlled: “Strange tales are coming to us from the battlefields of northern France. We would almost believe that our old friend Baron Münchausen had come to life” [September 30, 1916].
For most of the “great European war,” we decried “Europe's mad carnage” [September 23, 1916]. On May 7, 1915, wartime sentiment began to change for America. The RMS Lusitania, a civilian liner (unarmed but carrying some military cargo), was torpedoed off the coast of Ireland with the loss of 1,198 lives, including 128 Americans. Our editorial thundered, “Has this ceased to be a war of army against army and degenerated into a war against civilians and women and children?” [May 15, 1915]. The Scientific American issues of 1916 and 1917 show that U-boat warfare created a palpable fear in this country; it was certainly one reason the U.S. declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917.
America in 1917 had a tiny army but a lot of factories. The pace of war production quickly became frenetic. One report noted a U.S. Shipping Board motto: “Don't apologize, don't explain; let 'em holler, GET IT DONE!” [April 6, 1918]. In this new “total war,” even food became a weapon: “It is a military necessity that each acre produce the maximum of human food” [August 10, 1918].
By 1918 American troops and supplies were pouring in for the Allies. The Hundred Days Offensive drove the Germans out of France, and the Central Powers collapsed. The armistice ending the war took effect on the 11th day of the 11th month at the 11th hour: November 11, 1918, at 11 a.m.
Even as the war wound down, the next horror to visit humankind had made an appearance. The October 19, 1918, Scientific American Supplement carried a report from the July meeting of the Munich Medical Union noting a new pandemic they called “Spanish Influenza.” Within two years 50 million people had died of the disease, overshadowing the loss of the 10 million war dead.
The Victory Medal handed out to American, French, British and Allied soldiers bears the phrase: “The Great War for Civilization.” Yet the awful irony is that the children of “the war to end all wars” went on to fight and die in much larger numbers in the Second World War 20 years later—yet another calamity that eclipsed the First World War.
SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN ONLINE See an extended version of this article at ScientificAmerican.com/jul2014/great-war-centennial