Critical Essays A Note on World War I and Its Technology


Called the "Great War" for its complex involvement of nations extending from northern Europe to northern Africa, western Asia, and the United States, World War I dates officially to Gavrilo Princip's shooting of Austrian Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, as they crossed the River Miljachka in Sarajevo, Bosnia, June 28, 1914. Spurred by Serbian terrorism, animosities spread to countries that were interlinked by pacts, treaties, and mutual aims. Late that summer, Germany and Great Britain, trade rivals, and France, which coveted the mineral-rich district of Alsace-Lorraine, entered the fray, which included Czechs, Poles, Romanians, Russians, Bulgarians, Greeks, Arabs, and, eventually, Italians and Turks as well. Germany and Austria-Hungary comprised the Central Powers that invaded Belgium. England, backed by Japan, supported Belgium and declared war on the aggressors. As war fever swept England, fed by hate propaganda on both sides, feisty tommies sang "It's a Long Way to Tipperary" to their girls before leaving for places that many people had never heard of: the Marne and Somme rivers, Jutland, Bruges, Zeebrugge, Verdun, Flanders, Chateau-Thierry, Ypres, Calais, Gallipoli, the Ardennes Forest, and parts of the Falkland Islands.

Unlike wars in past centuries, hapless combatants, armed mainly with bayonet-equipped rifles, faced unforeseen threats, which grew out of expanding mechanization and scientific research:

  • the flamethrower, a German invention, could hurl a burning stream of gasoline gel at bunkers and pillboxes.
  • chlorine gas burned the lungs of victims, who either died or lived a miserable invalidism. Against the rules of the Geneva Convention, poisonous gas added a terrifying aspect to an already brutal war. The gas mask, invented by Garrett Augustus Morgan, an African-American, became a regular part of infantry gear.
  • the biplane, a plane with two sets of wings that could pinpoint troops massing for a ground attack, was enhanced by Anthony Fokker with a machine gun, which was synchronized to the turn of the propeller. The plane was frequently involved in dog fights, which Paul and his comrades observe from ground level.
  • high-explosive shells, frequently mentioned in All Quiet as the most tormenting of weapons, augmented by increased accuracy of aim, devastated trench positions and threatened whole towns.
  • the zeppelin, a hydrogen-filled airship, could glide silently over targets and drop bombs.
  • the U-boat, a lethal submarine that Germany used to invade British waters and sink supply ships, scuttled the Lusitania, a passenger vessel traveling from New York to Liverpool, lost off the coast of Ireland on May 7, 1915, killing 1,196 people.
  • the tank maneuvered inexorably across all types of terrain — mud, barbed wire, and trenches — on rotating caterpillar treads.

More familiar scourges — hunger, dysentery, typhus, and tetanus — reduced otherwise healthy men to ragged, dispirited wrecks. As war rhetoric continued to push for greater sacrifice, particularly rationing among civilians, many German soldiers, like Detering, grew disillusioned, deserted to defend their families, and were caught, hastily tried, and executed in the field.

The most significant roles in the war effort belonged to Kaiser Wilhelm II, who sought to annex land for Germany, and his top general, Paul von Hindenburg, who faced off against the British commander General Douglas Haig. By April 6, 1917, Germany's aggressive push to bring the United States into the war succeeded. Under President Woodrow Wilson, General John J. "Black Jack" Pershing led two million troops into France, where General Henri Petain headed up local forces. Rapid shifts of loyalties and loss reached a critical point in 1918, after Russia, sunk in its own revolution, deserted the Allied cause. The French reaped their sweetest victory on August 8, with the Second Battle of the Marne, which severely weakened the western front. As fall approached, first Bulgaria, then Turkey and Austria-Hungary surrendered. Germany, crumbling under the weight of severe losses and lack of supplies and reinforcements, capitulated on November 11, a month after the fictional death of Paul Bäumer. Of the more than sixty-four million combatants, eight million died in battle, twenty-one million were injured, and over six and a half million noncombatants were killed.