How technology killed the romance of war
Once looked upon as a field of honor for the valiant, modern society now regards war as the road to hell.
Before World War I, war was quick and decisive — soldiers either came home as heroes, or didn’t come home at all. Nobody was ready for the ramifications of World War I’s massive technological leap.
The grim realities of the Great War startled the world and shaped how humanity views warfare today. Before WWI, the public opinion of war was much less resigned, according to experts on the era.
“A great number of people welcomed the coming of World War I,” Andrew Wiest, a professor from the University of Southern Mississippi who specializes in World War I and Vietnam, said. “They felt it would be quick, felt it would be decisive again, based on the very recent history that [Prussia] had fought three very quick, very decisive wars for the unification of the country.”
He said, “Although these countries are armed to the teeth, if you look at their military planning, they all expect to win the war quickly. That was a really naive view of what World War I was fixing to be.”
The previous 50 years of war had been everything World War I was not, and expectations were drastically skewed because of it.
When WWI finally broke out, soldiers dove in prepared to make heroes of themselves.
“They thought that war still provided opportunities for individual heroism and that individuals could control their fate to a greater degree than turned out to be the case, in a war of artillery and extremely large weapons over long distances,” Richard Fogarty, associate professor from the State University of New York at Albany with a concentration on modern European culture, politics, war and military, said. “As some soldiers put it in their memoirs and other things, ‘I thought this war would be like the paintings of the great cavalry charges that you see’ — they thought it would be a romantic adventure.”
Soldiers expected, at the very least, a sense of personal contribution, if not a chance to earn their honor, Fogarty said.
Instead, they were relegated to disease-ridden ditches in typically European inclement weather, subject to some of the cruelest, most inhumane weapons ever used in war.
“It was a war waged in trenches with barbed wire, machine guns, heavy artillery, poison gas — the whole panoply of that war,” Fogarty said. “That meant that it was not a romantic adventure; that it was, in fact, something to be endured. You did your job and you hoped that you survived.”
The 1925 Geneva Protocol, a ban on biochemical weaponry, was enacted six years after World War I ended, which aimed to prevent future soldiers from suffering from the horrors of mustard gas and similar tools.
“Gas was hard for soldiers to bear — the gas masks were uncomfortable, it was hard to know when to use them and poison gas is scary,” Isabel V. Hull, a professor from Cornell University with a focus on World War I, genocide and related topics, said. “But gas did not bring the strategic advantage that the Germans might have hoped for, and its tactical uses were limited.”
While biochemical weapons were a terror for soldiers, the greatest threat was the endless bombardment from artillery.
The numerous technological advances first applied to warfare in WWI contributed heavily, if not almost entirely, to slowing the grisly battles to a glacial pace.
“Artillery had advanced at such an extent, they could fire shells — gigantic shells with extraordinary explosive power — over miles,” Fogarty said. “This meant the enemy had a good defense if they were behind defensive walls or in trenches. It was very hard to get them out of there.”
Without fleets of tanks and bombers, attacking was possible “only by firing your own artillery and just blasting away, which caused the ton of misery we associate with the war, and the stalemate and the destruction of landscapes,” he also said.
Technologically, defense had excelled, while offense was still struggling to catch up. Soldiers were reduced to bullets, plinking away at ironclad defenses and hoping to make a dent. Even medical advances that saved countless lives still reinforced the war’s colossal cost.
“The irony is that [modern medicine] saved a lot of people with horrific wounds that would have killed them,” Fogarty said. “You see a lot of people after the war with terrible head wounds, face wounds, and missing limbs who are able to survive because of the medical technology, but they’re a constant reminder of the horror.”
For years after the war, disfigured and disabled veterans would live alongside other civilians. Most had heard of death and pain on the battlefield before, but now the physical cost was much harder to ignore.
Will Uhl is a sophomore journalism major who studies combat theory in his free time. Email him at [email protected].