You’ve made it all the way to the last part of the World War I series. Well done, you! We’re going to finish up with an examination of U-Boats and airplanes, and then pull together everything we’ve learned into a single hypothesis.
The history of submersible devices goes back approximately 400 years, and the conception of their use as military devices is almost as old. It’s difficult to sum up half a millennium of development, abeit uneven and slow development, into a single paragraph, let alone into a single sentence, but in the interest of brevity and your attention span, I’m going to try anyway: there were a few proto-submarines, they were of limited effectiveness and use, and weren’t successfully used in war prior to World War I.
Unlike most of the other new weapons in WWI, Britain, and not Germany, started out with the advantage; they had 75 submarines, of which 15 were ocean-going and the rest were capable of coastal patrols. Germany only had 20 U-boats (short for Unterseeboot, which should require no translation if you say this aloud – or, as we’ve established you should always do with German words, yell this aloud). This makes a certain amount of sense, as the Royal Navy was the most powerful in the world. However, Great Britain is an island nation, which means that it relied on shipping and imports for supplies. While its supremacy above the waves was not to be challenged, it found itself vulnerable to attacks by U-boats, and Germany spent the duration of the war harrying the British navy and civilian ships to great effect.
Much like flamethrowers and chemical weapons, U-boats were a mixed bag with regards to the safety of their operators. Being in a U-boat was equal parts unpleasant and dangerous. Those aboard couldn’t shave, bathe, or change their clothes for weeks or even months at a time, and due to the pressure differential, flushing toilets was only possible when the sub was on the surface. Rookies usually made this particular mistake only once. Whatever you were imagining… it was worse. Everything, including the food, acquired an oily sheen and, of course, due to very limited refrigeration space, most of their available food went rotten quickly. One officer compared life aboard a U-boat to living in a damp cellar. If this doesn’t sound too bad to you yet – maybe you’re not a fan of daily showers and you have an iron stomach, or you don’t have a cellar – consider the following: if there was an accident aboard while the boat was submerged, your death was almost assured. Whether the U-boat hit something underwater (a mine, a previously unknown rock outcropping, another boat, etc.), or whether there was some sort of mechanical fault, it didn’t matter. You would die, and that death would quite possibly be excruciatingly slow and in pitch darkness.
Given what U-boats could do to British ships, however, those risks were considered to be worth the gain. U-boats completely changed not only the dynamic, but also the rules.
When we previously discussed the rules of war, especially those laid out in the Hague, we’ve seen (1) That certain types of ships were to be left alone (especially neutral ships and hospital ships), and (2) That shipwrecked persons were considered P.O.W.s, which carries the implication that they would survive and be taken aboard the attacking ship as such. There was another set of rules that governed the taking of ships in wartime, called “Cruiser Laws,” also known as “Prize Rules.” They state that passenger ships may not be sunk, that the people aboard merchant ships must be delivered to safety before their ship can be sunk (and that, unless near shore, a lifeboat is not considered a place of safety), and that only warships or merchant ships that are an active threat to the attacker may be sunk without any sort of warning.
U-boats blew the Cruiser Laws out of the water (forgive the pun, but I can’t help myself… and apparently, neither could the Germans). Though Germany abided by the Laws at first, they realized that following the laws made their subs useless as a tool for blockading an enemy country, and as a result, they more and more began to engage in unrestricted submarine warfare, a type of naval warfare where submarines sink ships – any ships – without warning, and where the passengers aboard are left to their fate. These are necessary evils when submarines are used, as their only advantage lies in the element of surprise. Neither do they have the space or the resources to “rescue” those aboard the doomed ship, especially in the case of large passenger liners like the Lusitania (sunk May 1915) that carry over 2000 people. Though the U-boat crews did use the periscopes to make an initial identification of the ships they were attempting to sink, for the most part it became indiscriminate. They openly sank neutral ships, merchant ships, hospital ships, and passenger ships. Quite literally thousands of ships were lost (though, admittedly, not all by U-boat).
U-Boot Truppentransporter, Willy Stöwer, postcard, 1917
Caption: "Sinking of a hostile armed troop carrier by German submarine in the Mediterranean Sea."
I’ve left airplanes for last, as the development of the airplane as a weapon is, aside from the U-boat, quite possibly the best illustration of the larger topic. As you hopefully already know, the airplane as a piece of technology was just over ten years old when the war started (the Wrights made the first sustained, controlled, and powered heaver-than-air flight lasting 12 seconds in late 1903). Early in the war, there was great debate and skepticism about the usefulness of the airplane as a military tool. Germany used Zeppelins (also a fairly new invention) for reconnaissance and bombing raids over England and France, and observation balloons were used by both sides for intelligence gathering and artillery spotting. Once it became apparent, though, that the increased firepower we’ve already discussed rendered it impossible for cavalry to provide their superiors with the type of reconnaissance they had been accustomed to before (horses are fast, but, unlike The Flash, they cannot outrun bullets), the idea that airplanes could be useful in that capacity gradually took hold.
So, at first, planes were used purely for reconnaissance, which made it pretty awkward when flying and encountering an enemy pilot. Usually exchanging nothing more than an awkward wave and even a smile was the order of the day (or a shaken fist, if you were feeling a bit grumpy). After all, the plane wasn’t yet seen as a weapon. It was definitely more than inconvenient for enemy pilots to scout your position, but there still was a sense of camaraderie and commonality among pilots of opposing countries. This conviviality did not last, however, as the war turned ever uglier: those aboard began throwing things at each other, though precisely when that began has not been documented. They heaved bricks, rocks, ropes, and grappling hooks (to foul enemy propellers) at each other before graduating to throwing grenades and trading shots from handheld pistols:
“I changed course for him and, as we passed the Taube, Jackson got in two shots with the rifle. We turned and passed each other again with no obvious result. This happened three or four times. Then, ‘Have you got a revolver, old boy? My ammunition's all gone.’ I, feeling rather sick of the proceedings, said ‘Yes. But no ammo.’ ‘Give it to me, old boy, and this time fly past him as close as you can.’ I carried out instructions and, to my amazement, as soon as we got opposite the Taube, Jackson, with my Army issue revolver grasped by the barrel, threw it at the Taube's propeller. Of course it missed and then, honor satisfied, we turned for home.”1
Pilots even tried ramming each other, but that tactic usually just wound up with both planes crashing, so it didn’t gain much popularity. These attacks were all very informal, but those in charge took notice and quickly realized the potential airplanes held as a brand of war all their own.
Planes were comparatively pokey in those days. Early WWI planes didn’t go much faster than 100 MPH (Snoopy’s famed Sopwith Camel went around 115 MPH, faster than the Red Baron’s Fokker Dr.1 at 103 MPH, but the Baron may have been the superior pilot, since Snoopy always seems to get shot down2), rendering WWI dogfights quite a bit differently than the high-octane Top Gun dogfights we imagine these days, but no less deadly.3
Aerial combat became commonplace by late 1915 with the Fokker Scourge, a stage in the increasingly desperate contest for air superiority, so named for the German planes which held a serious tactical advantage over the Allies: synchronized machine guns mounted in the planes themselves. By the end of the war, many planes were mounted with these machine guns, and people viewed Ace fighter pilots with awe akin to reverence.
An early attempt on a French Morane Saulnier L Parasol monoplane to mount a forward-firing gun.
So. It’s been a month since I started writing about World War I, and if you’ve followed me this far, you’re probably wondering if I have a point beyond “World War I was actually SUPER IMPORTANT, you guys!” Well, wonder no longer. Let’s pull it all together.
Technology always evolves faster than our policies regarding technology. For example, security cameras existed well before we had any privacy laws that covered their use. This makes perfect sense; how can you have a law governing the use of something that doesn’t exist yet? Sometimes the chicken and the egg conundrum does have a simple answer. The same principle covered the new weapons of World War I. It was the first truly industrialized war, and we had new technology in use before we had a code about the use of that technology (with the exception of chemical warfare, which was already forbidden).
As we’ve discussed, people of the early 20th century felt that humanity was reaching an age where war would be a thing of the past, that we were maturing as a species at the same rate we were progressing technologically. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. We were destined to have more and more brutal wars, rather than less.
This is for two reasons: 1) Technology has an inevitable tendency to grow, and, 2) That growth increases exponentially, not linearly. Visionary and inventor Buckminster Fuller claimed that, until the 20th century, the bulk of human knowledge doubled every century on average, but by the end of World War II, human knowledge was doubling every 25 years. Today, human knowledge is doubling every year, and there are those who say we are on track to double knowledge every 12 hours. The nature of technology – any technology – is constant and increasing growth. The technology of war follows this same track. WWI was first major war fought after the conclusion of the Industrial Revolution, and it was the first war that had a significantly different technological edge to it than the one before. The technology grew, and grew exponentially, which means that it was destined to become deadlier, leading to an escalation, rather than deceleration of the weaponry. The brutality of WWI was destined to continue and increase in wars throughout the 20th century, despite efforts to reign in that brutality.
Our final point: the technology of weaponry increases one of three things: the efficiency of the weapon at killing its target, the distance between the target and the combatant, and the fear it instills in the target. To say that the technology of war grew in WWI is to say that the weaponry became more efficient, more distant, and more terrifying (or some mix of those three). Because the weaponry was now significantly increasing the distance between combatant and target, World War I showed an increasing trend towards non-personal warfare, which leads to dehumanizing the enemy, and thus, more brutal behavior on the part of all combatants.
Because it was an industrial warfare with dramatically increased weapon capabilities and distance between the attacker and the target, it was destined to make war more dehumanizing and more brutal going forward.
1 Lt. W.R. Read, a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps, cited from http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/airwar1914.htm.
2 The Red Baron’s real name, in case you’re curious, was Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen. He’s officially credited with 80 air combat victories, and was shot down and killed in the spring of 1918 at the age of 25.
3 For all of the information you could ever want about WWI planes and their various speeds, visit http://www.militaryfactory.com/aircraft/ww1-aircraft-ranked-by-speed.asp.