History 104: Western Civilization since 1648
Lecture: The Great War and Russian Revolution

The technology and trench warfare click here for audio

The technology of this war put an end to gentlemanly warfare and the "don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes" mentality. Maxim gun

The machine gun had first been used effectively in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. Both sides had thought it a secret weapon, but they had used it differently. The French had thought it a piece of artillery, and thus gave it to the artillery gunners at the back of the troops. The Prussians (Germans) recognized it as a new type of weapon and gave it to a special machine gun corps at the front, which mowed down the French before they could fire their guns. The machine guns made short work of the war, which is why the Germans were confident they could take Paris quickly in 1914.

But by then everyone knew how to use the gun effectively, and both sides used it at the front. Both sides immediately had difficulty taking ground against the overlapping fire of machine guns. Both sides had to dig trenches to prevent having their heads blown off, and had to develop new strategies to take enemy trenches.Trench soldiers
Poison gas, such as mustard gas and chlorine gas, was lobbed inside shells, fired into enemy trenches to poison the men and clear the trench, thus preventing the manning of machine guns. One man at a machine gun in the enemy trench could prevent an entire group from getting across the "no man's land" that separated the trenches.

Airplanes were used to drop bombs into the enemy trenches, and early tanks emerged to try to over-run them. But the reality of trench warfare on the Western Front was a stalemate and ultimately a war of attrition, where both sides tried to wear down the enemy's ability to wage war. Thousands died in a single battle. On the Eastern Front, there was much death but not as many trenches, since the Russians were often retreating. Even so, on the Eastern Front and at the Bosphorus it was quickly discovered that old styles of fighting (battlefields and cavalry attacks) were obsolete.

Culturally, most saw the war as a waste of millions of lives. But others saw it as a trial by fire that made life more precious:

bookWorkbook document: Jünger -- Storm of Steel (1919)

Hard to stomach when you look at the number of dead. Each flag below represents a loss of 100,000 lives.

Map of dead

 

3. War Fever, Nationalism and Poster Art

Top