Guest Post: Technological and scientific developments in WW I

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At 11am on the 11th of November, it will be 100 years since the guns went silent in what those taking part thought of as “the war to end all wars”. For the historical pedant, 11 November 1918 was not  the end of the war, it was an armistice only; the war  didn’t actually end until the Treaty of Versailles was signed the following year. So what can we say now  about WW I – as it became 20 years later when the next “war to end all wars” broke out – which is in any way  new? Let’s look at technological developments, both on and off the battlefield.

Significant wars always lead to dramatic improvements in military and related  technology, but WW I was arguably the most significant example ever seen, before or since. Perhaps the greatest advances came in the air – WW I was the first war which extended hostilities upward into the sky; all previous wars  had been fought on land or sea or both. In my view, the pace of advancement in the air between 1914 and 1918 was equivalent to that of the middle years of the  space race 50 years later.

At the beginning of  1914 aircraft could barely carry a pilot, much less guns and bombs. At the start of the conflict men in flimsy contraptions made  of canvas and wire built to resemble birds literally tried to shoot each other down with pistols, and threw small bombs directly at their opponent, or in an attempt to hit ground targets. At the beginning, army generals who conceded aviation had any part to play at all in the conflict were convinced that the only role for  aircraft was as observers of what was happening on the ground.

A “fighter” in late  1914 might fly at 80 miles per hour, and have a ceiling (maximum operating altitude) of perhaps a few thousand feet. Many more men were lost to aircraft failure than enemy action. Aircraft often literally fell apart in the air if they had managed to take off at all, and many more deaths occurred through accident than actual conflict.  But developments were rapid. Less than six months after hostilities began in August 1914,  Dutch aircraft engineer Anthony Fokker had invented an “interrupter” mechanism that allowed a machine gun –  and then very quickly  two of them – to   fire through the propeller without hitting the blades.  That revolutionized air combat: the pilot just had to point his aircraft at his adversary, get  and stay within range, and fire.

Although the aircraft of what became known as the “Fokker Scourge” of mid 1915 were monoplanes, and both sides – mainly the British – were experimenting with “pusher” aircraft with rear facing propellers, by 1916 a mere 18 months after the conflict had begun, single seater bi-planes with one or two machine guns firing through the propeller became the pattern of the fighter aircraft types which would continue to be used to the end of the war, albeit with rapidly increasing levels of performance in terms of speed, ceiling, hitting power, and reliability.

By the beginning of  1918,  single seater  fighters capable of 120 mph, with  a ceiling of 20,000 feet, and armed with two forward facing machine guns  had been developed by both sides. Such an advance in performance in such a short time would not be seen again until  near the end the Second War, when jet fighters made piston powered aircraft obsolete.

While everyone knows a bit about WW I fighter aircraft, the significant  part bombers played in the aerial war is less well  known. Until 1917, bombing raids on Britain were carried out with airships – usually but not always the famous Zeppelins – but  by late 1917 twin engined Gotha bombers had begun to carry out what later become known as the first blitz – a slight foreshadow of what was to come 20 odd years later. On 13 June 1917 Gothas bombed London in daylight, causing 600 casualties, many of them school children. In 1938, a high ranking RAF officer called the raid “the beginning of a new epoch in the history of warfare”.

On the ground, as every fan of “Blackadder goes forth” will recall,  nothing much was happening. Both sides occupied trench systems behind layers of barbed wire – not invented until 1865, after the American Civil War – which stretched all the way from the Belgian coast to the Swiss border. Both sides used machine guns, a terrible advance on the gatling gun first used in the American Civil War.  Poison gas was also used by both sides, but such attacks could quickly turn into catastrophes for the attackers if the wind changed. Nevertheless, the horrible injuries caused by gas arguably led to it never being used in the Second War, although there is evidence that both the Germans  and the allies considered doing so.

Both sides undertook “big pushes” to gain territory – the usual result being huge casualties for little or no gain. The new  machine guns, set up behind layers of  barbed wire, together with what in hindsight  were  ridiculous tactics more suited to the Crimean war led to  casualties that now seem literally unbelievable. The British suffered 60,000 casualties on the first day  of the Battle of the Somme. In a war in which records were broken regularly, the Somme Offensive was a new level of horror: three million men fought the battle, with one million of them being killed or wounded. All for little gain in territory.  And then a new weapon arrived – the tank.

While he is in my view wrongly blamed for the disaster that Gallipoli became, few know that the WW I tank was Winston Churchill’s brainchild, and he is rarely given credit for it other than among the well informed. He rightly saw that without some dramatic advance in technology or tactics that would neutralize the deadly combination of barbed wire and machine guns, the war might continue indefinitely, with the blood of young men on both sides being shed for virtually nothing.

The first “landships” as they were called are virtually unrecognizable as the  weapons which enabled the Germans to conduct  blitzkrieg – lightning war – 20 years later. They were slow lumbering beasts prone to breakdown with limited armament, and carrier pigeons for one way communication. But they were immune to machine gun  fire, and when they were first used in numbers at the First  Battle of Cambrai in November 1917,  they caused widespread panic among the Germans who had never seen such a frightening  beast, off which their bullets literally bounced, but which continued to spit fire at them.

While the battle was in my view a breakthrough equivalent at least to the first  bomber raids on London, this first use of tanks wasn’t decisive: there weren’t enough of them, they were prone to breakdown, and the Germans quickly learned how to combat them with artillery and tactics which exposed the landships’ weaknesses. However the Second Battle of Cambrai which occurred less than a year later was a decisive battle, although by then the Americans had belatedly arrived to join the allies.

Military historians remain divided on whether tanks or  yanks were the most significant factor in a battle in which significant territory was taken in a short time with relatively light casualties. What is significant is that many of  the tanks used in the second battle of Cambrai resemble battle tanks today: a hull with caterpillar tracks surmounted by a rotating turret, with a large calibre gun and a machine gun, rather than the rhomboid shapes surrounded by tracks of only a year before.

As  WW I saw huge and terrible advances in military technology, it also gave rise to horrendous wounds among survivors, with men having half their faces blown off as well as losing  limbs. The facial injuries were so horrible that many survivors must have wished they were dead.

Before the War, plastic surgery was seen as the  province of the frivolous rich  and famous who were dissatisfied with the shape of their noses or the size of their breasts. It was regarded perhaps as lipo-suction is now – a somewhat disreputable and not-really-serious branch of medicine. WW I changed that forever, and the central figure in that transformation was a New Zealander, Harold Gillies.

Gillies saw the dreadful wounds caused by the new high explosive artillery shells – wounds so bad that often  the best that could be done for the victims was a phantom of the opera type mask to wear in public – and he determined to use his skills to help the afflicted men to be able to lead as normal lives as possible. Gillies’ biographies include many  “before and after” photos of his patients; men who came to him without a nose, their eyelids burned or blown off, and with an open gash where once had been a mouth. Gillies  transformed them, often after many months and numerous operations, into figures that at least looked human, albeit rather damaged ones.

After the war, Gillies returned to tending mainly to the rich and famous, but when  WW II broke out  he again began working on war wounds victims, now aided by his cousin and pupil Archie McIndoe, another New Zealander, who became famous in his own right for his work rebuilding the faces of pilots severely burned in the Battle of Britain.

Other than the developments in reconstructive plastic surgery, nothing in this piece should be taken to suggest there was anything good about the technological developments in the First World War. By and large, they were developments aimed at more efficient killing; in the case of the bombers the more efficient killing of civilians, who were brought directly into war as unwilling participants for the first time. For all that, it was a quite remarkable four years, with at least as many significant technological developments as the second world conflict which was to follow. How sad  that it is major wars which always see the fastest and most far reaching advances in technology.

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