I happen to be reading “History of the World War“, by Francis March, as this year’s Memorial Day approaches. While it’s common knowledge that war is hell, many people forget how horrific World War One really was. With the death of the last kn0wn World War One veteran barely three months ago, it is quickly fading from living memory.
Lest we forget, here are some excerpts from the book (pg. 220):
Trench warfare occupied most of the time and made nine-tenths of the discomforts of the soldiers of both armies. If proof of the adaptive capacity of the human animal were needed, it is afforded by the manner in which the men burrowed in vermin-infested earth and lived there under conditions of Arctic cold, frequently enduring long deprivations of food, fuel, and suitable clothing. During the early stages of the war, before men became accustomed to the rigors of the trenches, many thousands died as a direct result of the exposure. Many thousands of others were incapacitated for life by “trench feet,” a group of maladies covering the consequences of exposure to cold and water which in those early days flowed in rivulets through most of the trenches. The trenches at Gallipoli had their own special brand of maladies. Heatstroke and a malarial infection were among these disabling agencies. Trench fever, a malady beginning with a headache and sometimes ending in partial paralysis and death, was another common factor in the mortality records…
Trench warfare brings with it new instruments. There are the flame projectors, which throw fire to a distance of approximately a hundred feet. The Germans were the first to use these, but they were excelled in this respect by the inventive genius of the nations opposing them.
The use of poison gas, the word being used in its broad sense, is now general. It was first used by the Germans, but as in the case of flame throwers, the Allies soon gained the ascendency.
The first use of asphyxiating gas was by the Germans during the first battle of Ypres. There the deadly compound was mixed in huge reservoirs back of the German lines. From these extended a system of pipes with vents pointed toward the British and Canadian lines. Waiting until air currents were moving steadily westward, the Germans opened the stop-cocks shortly after midnight and the poisonous fumes swept slowly, relentlessly forward in a greenish cloud that moved close to the earth. The result of that fiendish and cowardly act was that thousands of men died in horrible agony without a chance for their lives.
Among the novelties introduced in that conflict, March counts: Tanks, hand-grenades, aerial bombing, poison gas, machine guns and flame-throwers.
Reading the book, I can’t help but be amazed at the loyalty people felt toward their respective tribes. For example, the German navel officer Von Tirpitz (pg. 144):
… admired the English. His children had been brought up in England, as was also his wife. He imitated the English, but on the day of the declaration of war, he absolutely forbade his family to talk English, and he made a bonfire of his fine scientific library of English books.
Fanaticism such as this inevitably lead to a cheapening of human life and the rapid expansion of the conflict. After World War Two, many Europeans looked back and wondered if patriotism justified such enormous suffering and destruction. Thus was sown the seed of destruction, among Western nations, when it came into fashion to adopt the opposite extreme. This will lead, ultimately, to even more suffering and destruction.
Yep. People hear so much about WW2 and Vietnam that they forget just how bad trench warfare was. Living in the same ditch you use for your toilet. Slopping around in knee deep mud and feces. Rats everywhere. Constant shelling and anyone who pokes their head up gets it shot off. And then both sides are gassing each other to make them poke their heads up. Did you know that the Spanish Flue ended WW1? Apparently, it was fairly deadly and the crowded conditions made it worse for soldiers. They quit because there weren’t enough soldiers left to fight.
Interesting trivia foreshadowed in your quote. Germans invented the machine pistol to use in the trenches. The British didn’t have anything for that kind of fighting so they brought their hunting shotguns and sawed them off ie “trench gun”. The German govt lodged a diplomatic protest (on the grounds that shotgun injuries were excessive) and threatened to execute any soldiers captured with one. Though they never did. The Turks similarly protested that the shotgun was too brutal for war. They kind of have a point in that someone shot with a rifle will be incapacitated but probably live whereas someone shot with a 12 ga probably won’t. If the SHTF and you can only have one firearm then make it a shotgun.
Speaking of SHTF, if you can only have one watch then make it a Casio F91W. If it’s good enough for Osama then it’s good enough for you.
And be sure to check out this review on Amazon. LOL!
Re: Osama’s Casio. Is that how he got on the watch list?
Thanks for sharing that review; it’s pretty funny.
I was thinking about Destructure’s point about machine pistols. A thought puzzled me: I’d pick my period Lee-Enfield rifle over a machine pistol for house-to-house fighting, jungle fighting, desert fighting, sniping, brownwater fighting between unarmed small craft … almost every type of fighting except trench fighting. There, pistol-caliber bullet spitters like the Mauser 7.63mm (available in full auto even before the war), the Luger with its snail-drum magazine, the Villar-Perosa all had a very important place. Trenches saw the resurrection of the club, flail, and dagger (one interesting irony is the modern 7-inch bayonet would have been a decent trench weapon; the bayonet circa 1900 was sword-like in dimensions–ideal trench weapons are much shorter).
All countries considered the rifle the infantry weapon par excellence in 1914. Grenades had been allowed to become obsolete; many countries treated handguns as a badge of rank and few issued them to ordinary soldiers; trench mortars and flamethrowers were yet to be invented.
It all makes sense when you realize: trenches were built (partly), to defeat enemy rifle and machinegun fire (usually the same ammo, at the same trajectory). The dugouts were overhead protection against artillery, just as the sandbags were protection against rifle fire. If trenches didn’t kill the rifle, at least temporarily, the war wouldn’t have degenerated into stalemate. So the rifle had to take a back seat for a while; Erich Maria Remarque’s fictional-but-realistic German infantry don’t carry them, or bayonets, on charges–only grenades and sharpened spades.
(I’ll not rehash the horrific side; that has been amply covered here and elsewhere.)
World War I technology is as wonderful as the war was horrible. Everything was made of wood and leather and carbon steel. Cavalry units were still officially issued sabres and lances at the same time airship crews were breathing bottled oxygen (most cavalry on the Western Front were unhorsed, reärmed, and sent to the trenches, but Generals held out hopes of cold-steel cavalry charges until the very end). Italian Arditi were issued both the ancient dagger and the ultra-modern portable flamethrower (in preference to the rifle and carbine which were mere infantry weapons).
I think there is a subtle rivalry between WWI and WWII buffs. I am firmly in the former camp, a minority, so perhaps I am biased. How many WWII buffs could guess when towed passive sonar was introduced (K-tube fish)? The six-engined bomber(Siemens-Schuckert R.VIII)? The self-propelled anti-aircraft gun (Krupp 75mm anti-balloon gun)?
And who developed the modern tank configuration? (I’m talking about a vehicle shaped like a main battle tank–a fully rotating turret with better than a machinegun for armament, on a two-tracked non-wheeled chassis. I’m not talking about size or performance.) It was Renault (FT-17).
WWI was a big damned tragedy.
The European foreign relations paradigm of secret treaties was supposed to prevent wars like these. The idea was that you had secret treaties, so you knew your neighbors had secret treaties, so if you invaded your neighbor, you didn’t know who else you were invading. The deterrence effect. That paradigm only envisioned conventional head-on invasions — Where it screwed up is that a relatively minor crime could set off a chain reaction where Europe was divided against itself and white people were killing each other.
I think the egalitarian left lost in the short term and won in the long term from WWI, and eventually WWII (in the distant future, they’ll be considered the same war). They lost in the short term because it totally borked Marxist social theory about “workers” joining with each other instead of rallying to their various nationalities, which they did do. But like you said, in the long term, after the follow up war, it soured the intellectual public in the western world on nationalism, turning it into almost a cuss word.
Pretty much, but WW2 probably had an even bigger effect. A total of 50 million people died in that war, and all the colonial powers eventually had to relinquish their possessions. Europe was in ruins. If you want to mark the end of European dominance, that was it.
Interestingly Australia’s best WWI General, John Monash, was a Jew whose family was originally from Germany. Montgomery said of him “”I would name Sir John Monash as the best general on the western front in Europe”. His tactics would also be used as the blueprint for the German blitzkrieg in WWII.
How can anyone navigate through the unknown without overcorrection as a guiding method. You ever make a big change without needing to first overcorrect, and then adjust?
Post-colonial ethical overcorrection, is a term I’ve been ruminating on.