When the “Guns of August” began firing 100 years ago, fewexpected it to be a long war, and fewer still expected itto be a “World War.” However, the “Great War,” as it was known tocontemporaries, in fact was destined to become the First World War — and it truly was the first modern war.
Today it is easy to look back atthe Second World War for providing great technical advancements. Itushered in the atomic bomb, jet aircraft and even Silly Putty;however, the First World War also was a war of great technologicaladvances. Many of those efforts resulted in the horrificcasualties, which numbered in the tens of millions.
World War I began very much as a 19th-century war, with soldiers on bothsides marching into battle in uniforms that wouldn’t have been out ofplace on parade grounds. Horses were used by cavalry and as ameans of transport, and one of the greatest pre-war technologicaladvancements actually was the railroad.
Germany worked feverishly formore than a decade to build up a railway network to transport men andmaterial quickly across the country. In fact, one reason the warbecame “unstoppable” in the summer of 1914 was that German troops werealready in motion.
One of the tragedies of World War I was thatits high casualties were due very much to the fact that themilitary leaders, who actually had not experienced a major conflict inEurope, simply did not comprehend the devastatingpower of modern weapons.
“Along with the transition from real horsepower, there’s also thedreadful toll that what might be called a “generational ignorance” oftechnology — by older, set-in-their-ways commanders who willfullyrefused to acknowledge the impact of new weaponry — took on men in thetrenches,” said history buff Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT.
“There is strong historical evidence thatthere was a disconnect between the command line officers, who had beenbred with 19th-century tactics, and the situation as it unfolded,” he told TechNewsWorld. “Thecommanders were simply not ready for the technical advancements facedby the front line soldiers.”
As soon as it began, it should have been clear to the commanders thatthis was going to be a different war — but as with the troop trains, it was impossible to change course.
“World War I started in the late summer of 1914 with a mix ofFranco-Prussian War uniforms and tactics, but almost immediately causedsome shifts to modern war of aerial bombardment — total war withcivilians being killed as well as mobilized on a grand scale,” said DoranCart, senior curator at the National World War I Museum in KansasCity.
“Posters urged everyone to join up, savefood, support the war efforts by deed and thought,” he told TechNewsWorld. “Almost instantcommunications, improved railroads and ships, and the immediate use andcontinued development of airplanes did make it a truly modern war.”
The Fog of War
One fact that often is lost in the century of hindsight aboutWorld War I is that no one on either side actually expected a long ordrawn-out conflict. Instead ofmaking it a quick war, technological advances had the opposite effect.
WWI greatly accelerated “the advance of technologies — munitions, chemicalweapons, radio, aircraft, etc. — that until that point were movingrather slowly,” Practical Futurist Michael Rogers told TechNewsWorld.”War has always been the major catalyst for technology.”
Even those with foresight were unable to see the horrors that the warwas to unleash, he added.
“I love to point out that in H.G. Wells’1900 book Anticipations — which made a lot of remarkably accuratepredictions about the 20th century — he totally missed on both theairplane and the submarines. He expected aircraft to become workablearound the 1950s and averred that submarines would never, ever work,except to drown the captain and crew,” noted Rogers.
The Arms Race
As the armies bogged down in WWI’s now infamous trench warfare,military planners on both sides looked to break the stalemate. Their effortsushered in advances in aircraft, ships and armored vehicles.
“World War I in technical terms, from the military point of view, wasreally a turning point,” said Capt. Dale Dye, USMC (Retired), a military history consultant for movies and TV.
“The war wassimply pivotal in terms of technology. Tactical aviation came into itsown, the tank had huge ramifications in tactics and strategy, and therewere new and horrible ways to kill one another — including chemicalwarfare and other types of biological weapons,” he pointed out.
War became far more mechanized due to the fact that Europe hadexperienced a leap forward with the industrial revolution.
“We think of the trench warfare, but this was really the earlydevelopment of highly mobile forces built around machines,” addedPund-IT’s King. “When the Allied forces — including the United States, France andGreat Britain — were able to use the mobile advantage, including thetank, it changed the outcome of a battle.”
Drive to the Front
The Allied victory also can be credited to the use of the automobile.As early as September 1914, when the war was just weeks old, the FrenchArmy raced to the front lines at the Battle of the Marne with the aidof Parisian taxis. Later in the war, trucks were used to move men andmaterial to the front, which provided greater mobility with fasterspeeds.
That in turn jump-started the post-war automobile industry, especiallyin the United States.
“Automobiles and trucks really didn’t advance new possibilities, butjust the sheer number that were produced boded well for civilianavailability, and use and the development of better road systems,”added National World War I Museum’s Cart.
“A great advance along these lines was the tracked vehiclemotion developed from earlier agricultural applications for heavyordnance movement and tanks would change farming as well asconstruction.”
“This is an example of swords into plowshares,” Dye toldTechNewsWorld. “Motor transport had to deal with rough terrain, butthe tank and tracked vehicles did lead to the machinery that helpedbuild the modern cities of the interwar era.”
The technology also was crucial to then connecting the cities via airtravel, which became possible thanks to the efforts to buildbigger planes.
“Indeed, with the development of heavy bombers came the idea and themachinery for actually carrying passengers instead of bombs,” Cartnoted.
It wasn’t just killing machines that came out of the war.World War I saw technology improvements to save lives — notably in the helmets and bodyarmor that made a comeback in the trenches.
“These never really went away,” said Dye. “Armor was used fromantiquity, but in World War I the helmets and body armor were looked atin new ways — some of which are still in use today for the police andeven in sports.”
Battlefield wounds less frequently were death sentences, as medical advancestried to keep pace with efforts to kill.
“Probably the most beneficial were the advances in medicaltechnologies and treatments: new techniques of treating head traumas,development of the triage system for treating the wounded in anorderly fashion, creation of the Carrel-Dakin Solution for cleaningwounds, and great advances in what would be later called plasticsurgery,” said Cart. “Also, having advanced medical treatmentfacilities closer to the action saved more lives.”
Some of the medical advances found post-war use in civilian products as well.
“Because of the sheer number of wounds, nurses and doctors had to findan alternative to the traditional handmade cloth bandage,” said King.”The French came up with a cellulose bandage, and it didn’t take longfor the nurses to realize that those could be used as sanitary napkinsas well.”
For those technological advances, humanity paid a huge price — not only the millions of deaths that occurred during WWI, but also the scourge of continuedconflict; the war shifted boundaries that remain a problem even tothis day. The Great War was not to be the”war to end all wars,” but rather a stark turning point in the history of the20th century.
“To paraphrase American humorist Will Rogers,” said Cart, “theadvances in weapons technology just proved that we could come up withbetter ways to kill each other.”