Breakdown of Order: Part 3

October 19, 2015

I ended the most recent blog post by stating that World War I was a 19th century war fought with 20th century technology, and that is where we must start this week.  In regards to the first half of that statement: we’ve already discussed a bit about the rules of warfare that led people of the era to believe that war could and should be a largely civilized affair, but we also need to say a few words about military strategy.


When I was a child and far too young to understand what war was, I pictured it as the soldiers of two sides standing across a line from each other, and firing straight across the line.  A young Sun Tzu I clearly wasn’t, but when I grew old enough to study history and understand how wars are fought, imagine my surprise when I found out that my childhood notions of war weren’t, historically speaking, terribly far off the mark.  In the late 1800s and early 1900s, strategy was heavily dominated by offensive thinking.  It was a very straightforward notion: attack, advance, and win.  Lather, rise, and repeat.  Land-based attacks usually involved artillery barrages, followed by a massed infantry advance.  Despite the fact that the weapons we’re going to discuss shortly made this a strategy good for little more than massacring your own soldiers, generals persisted in this old-fashioned tactic, attempting to justify it as a strategy of attrition.  The land-based war became a quagmire, a stalemate periodically broken by these barrages and disastrous advances out of the trenches and across No Man’s Land by both sides. What the generals seemed to fail to recognize, to twist an old phrase, is that their soldiers were bringing bayonets to a machine gun fight.


What victories there were – such as they were – were largely due to the implementation of innovative new weapons and tools that were either being used for the first time in World War I, or had been used before, but had never been widely used or effective before.  We won’t be discussing all of them in great detail, as that would take way too long and probably bore you, but in the interest of a somewhat comprehensive list, they are: machine guns, flamethrowers, chemical weapons, tanks, grenades, trench mortars, U-boats, airplanes, and, consequently, anti-aircraft guns.  Trench warfare, while not a weapon or a tool, was also used most extensively during WWI, and so deserves a mention (I’ll likely do an entire blog post about trench warfare in the future, so I’m going to move on for now).   


A word about weaponry in general: historically, weapons have shown an increasing ability to separate the soldier from the action.  Not only does the individual soldier grow physically safer as his distance from the thick of things increases (with a few exceptions, such as when snipers are present), but I believe that the distance may also make it emotionally easier for the soldier to do his job; it is one thing to pull a trigger and know that it will kill someone, but quite another to pull the trigger while looking that someone in the face and watching them die.  Increasing the distance allows for dehumanizing the enemy, which lessens the psychological impact of the kill.1 Bows and arrows, throwing spears, trebuchets and catapults, firearms… All of these weapons, as well as the ones we will discuss below, continue the trend of distancing the fighter from the enemy that has, in today’s world, culminated with the inevitable invention of the unmanned drone.


Let’s dive right in.  In choosing which of these fascinating weapons/tools to examine more fully, I’ve chosen to discuss the ones that I believe best illustrate my wider point that WWI is the first modern war.  Generally, when people consider the effectiveness of weapons, they usually consider two criteria: (1) How accurate/efficient it is at killing the enemy, and (2) How safe it is for the person/people operating it.  We’re going to examine these weapons from that context.


Machine Guns 


The first proto-machine gun – the Maxim gun – was invented in 1884, so it wasn’t exactly a brand new invention for World War I (the Gatling gun and other precursors to the machine gun had already been invented, but I mention the Maxim gun specifically because it was the first self-powered machine gun).  However, not all armies made use of the machine gun early on in the war.  First off, it was still relatively clunky, requiring a crew of between four and six operators, and not terribly consistent.  It overheated easily, so was best used in short bursts, and even then, it still jammed often.  However, the British chose not to buy up machine guns in large numbers before the war for one main reason: they felt that it wasn’t a gentlemanly weapon, and that using it would be an improper way to conduct war (remember the rules of war that we discussed a week or so ago? This decision was a real-world corollary of that idea that war could be civilized and controlled).  The consequence of this decision, as well-meant as it may have been, was that, when push came to shove in 1914, the German army had oodles of machine guns to use (over 12,000 to begin with), while the British and French armies combined only had a few hundred.  Of course, they caught up pretty quickly.


                           British Vickers machine gun crew wearing early gas masks


During the early days of the war, the large, cumbersome machine gun found its niche as a defensive weapon… and what a weapon! In a war where, as we’ve discussed above, the prevalent strategy involved emerging from your trench and running across a more-or-less open plain straight at the enemy, the machine gun, fired from the safety of one’s own trench, proved to be absolutely devastating, and thus served as a very effective implement for those wielding it, both in killing the enemy and in widening the distance between the aggressor and his enemy.  And somehow, I don’t think that I need to go into great detail for you to understand why.  The only thing that is difficult to understand is why it took the generals so long to realize that the idea of sending their soldiers charging straight at the gaping maw of a gun that could fire between 300 and 600 rounds per minute was lacking something.  Like half a brain.  


Flamethrowers and Chemical Weapons 


Trying to answer those two questions for these particular weapons is an interesting exercise.  But first, a few words about the history of each:


The idea of flamethrowers dates back well over a thousand years to the Byzantine Empire.  “Greek Fire,” as it was called, involved the use of pressurized nozzles to squirt an incendiary compound onto enemy ships; to this day, no one knows precisely what chemical composition it was, though there have been many theories proposed.  The Chinese also had a similar weapon a thousand years ago, called the Pen Huo Qi, which translates to “spray fire device.”     


A depiction of Greek Fire from a 12th century illuminated manuscript, the Madrid Skylitzes


 The modern flamethrower, or Flammenwerfer (to understand the full amazingness of this name, please take a moment and yell it in a German accent), was invented in Germany at the very beginning of the 20th century, and is generally attributed to a scientist named Richard Fiedler. There were two models used during the war: the Kleinflammenwerfer could be carried and used by a single man, with the ability to spit flames up to 18 meters (59 feet), and the Grossflammenwerfer, though larger and much less mobile, had a range of twice the length of the smaller model and the ability to sustain those flames for up to forty seconds. 


                                 German flamethrowers on the Western Front, 1917


Like flamethrowers, the use of chemicals in warfare dates far back into history.  Early examples include poisoned weapons (arrows, spears, etc.).  Gas warfare in the Western world is a lot older than you probably think it is.  It dates back to the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta (5th century BCE), when the Spartans attempted to poison the Greeks by placing a burning mixture of sulfur, wood, and pitch under the walls of an Athenian city.  The Chinese also used a version of gas attacks over two thousand years ago: writings from the Mohist philosophical sect in the 2nd century BCE describe the use of bellows to disseminate smoke from burning balls of mustard and other various toxic vegetables into tunnels being dug by an enemy army.  There is also evidence of other scattered chemical/smoke attacks throughout pre-modern history.


Chemical warfare found its first widespread use during World War I in direct violation of the Hague Declaration of 1899 and the Hague Convention of 1907, which forbade the use of poison or poisoned weapons.  To understand the tectonic shift in modern warfare, just consider this: by 1915, all major combatants were openly committing acknowledged war crimes.  The French were the first to do so with the use of tear gas, which, unlike the gas attacks to come, was temporarily debilitating, but not fatal.  After a failed attempt at their own tear gas attack, the Germans (surprisingly imaginative, as we’ve seen) responded with chlorine.  The inhalation of chlorine gas creates hydrochloric acid, which destroys respiratory tissues in the affected people, leading to choking attacks, vomiting, blisters and burning sensations, and, eventually, without treatment, death.2


The French countered with phosgene, which was more difficult to detect than the yellow-green cloud of chlorine, and was responsible for 85% of the deaths attributed to chemical weapons during the war.  Phosgene, or COCl2, was deadlier than chlorine, but the more serious effects of the gas took up to a full day to manifest.  Like chlorine, it induces coughing, vomiting, and burning sensations.  It leads to difficulty breathing and heart failure.  Though there are steps to take if you are exposed to phosgene, they all depend on finding a way to remove the phosgene from the body.  You’ll be unsurprised to learn how difficult this is to do in the middle of a mud-filled trench, and even today, there is no antidote.3


The final addition to this toxic chemical cocktail was the German introduction of mustard gas in 1917.  This is still considered one of the more deplorable German creations in history, barely beating out lederhosen and the band Rammstein.  Mustard gas is not quite as fatal as the previous two, but it was very effective as a disabling agent: it burns and blisters the skin, temporarily blinds the eyes, causes internal and external bleeding, and strips the mucus membrane from the bronchial tubes.  Those who did die from exposure (fewer than 5% of those who were exposed and received fast treatment) took several agonizing weeks to do so.  As with phosgene, there is no antidote.4


                                                 Gassed, John Singer Sargent, 1919 

          This painting is the definitive depiction of the aftermath of a mustard gas attack 


The interesting thing about both chemical weapons and flamethrowers is that when you ask about them the questions mentioned earlier (How effective are they? and How safe to operate are they?), the answer to both is “not very.”


With flamethrowers, especially with regards to the immobile Grossflammenwerfer, British and French soldiers figured out pretty quickly that those who weren’t immediately incinerated in the opening volley could run from the flames and get outside of the range of the weapon.  And it turns out that flamethrowers provide opposing soldiers with a very bright and noticeable target.  Besides the instability of the weapon itself – it wasn’t unusual for a flamethower to explode and kill its operators – it was dangerous to operate in that, in the eyes of the opposing armies, flamethower operators were marked for death.  If captured, they would be shown no mercy. 


Clouds of poisonous (and sometimes invisible) gas drifting around were not as easy from which to escape, but the invention of gas masks, which started out very simply as cotton mouth pads, but quickly gained in complexity and efficacy until they would be easily recognizable to us today, made chemical attacks far more survivable.  As for the safety of those setting off a gas attack… Excuse me while I laugh derisively.  Once they released the gas, they had no control over where the wind would take it, including straight back in their faces.  Or, as scientist Theodore Gray said far more eloquently in his book, The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Atom in the Universe, “Soldiers would position a line of gas cylinders at the front lines, wait for the wind to shift towards the enemy, then open the valves and run like hell… Experience showed that roughly equal numbers of soldiers on both sides died regardless of who set off the gas.”


                   An aerial view of a French gas attack in Flanders, Belgium, 1917


Since neither flamethrowers nor gas attacks were terribly effective or safe for their operators, their continued usage throughout the war might seem puzzling until you take into account a third, commonly forgotten attribute of weapons: its ability to terrorize the enemy.  Psychological damage can cause as much destruction on the battlefield as physical damage can.  Soldiers traumatized by chemical attacks became debilitated by panic at the symptoms of the common cold.  The fear of being burned alive by a flamethrower haunted others.  Fear is a very powerful weapon when wielded effectively, and WWI, using weapons like the flamethrower and poison gases (neither of which are considered permissible weapons in today’s combat situations) used fear like never before.



In next week’s post concluding this series on World War I, we’ll examine U-boats and airplanes, and how they too changed the rules of war. 




1 This theory is discussed, among other places, at the Center for Research on Globalization, which says, “[Killing at a distance] is not killing but a computer game.  Scoring a ‘hit’ that involves no blood, no entrails, no broken lives brings no guilt, no remorse and no proper awareness of the hurt inflicted on others.” Cited from








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