Chapter 5 - The Emergence of Modern War
World War I
The social, political, and economic context in which armies were raised and wars were fought had changed considerably in the 75 years since the Civil War. The political structures of the national states of Europe were under attack from new ideologies of the left and center that greatly weakened the power of the executive while increasing the influence of the legislatures. Traditional ruling elites now had to share power or were replaced by elected leaders. The monarchies, while retained in form, lost most of their substantive power. The need for political leaders to sustain their electoral bases required that conflicts be cast in highly moral and ideological terms. Wars now became moral crusades, a fact which made them easier to start and more difficult to resolve short of total victory.
The search for economic self-sufficiency led each major power to engage in the quest for colonial empire that could provide stable sources of raw materials and secure markets for manufactured goods. Inevitably, conflicts in peripheral colonial areas brought the major powers into collision on the rim of Europe until, in 1914, these conflicts engulfed the heartland of Europe itself. The rapid development of military technology led to a continuous arms race. This state of affairs, in turn, provoked a spate of alliances and counter-alliances among the major powers and the fragmented smaller states of eastern Europe. The stage was set to draw the larger states into direct conflict whenever the smaller states collided with one another.
The size of the standing armies of the day grew in response to the need to take advantage of the new military technologies. The destructiveness of modern weapons required that large numbers of fighting men be readily available. Propelled by the strategic doctrine of the day that held that the side that mobilized quickest would have the advantage of striking a lethal blow, nations established large reserve forces that could be mobilized and deployed within days. Once mobilization plans were set in motion, however, they could not be easily stopped without conceding a significant military advantage to one's opponent. Once war broke out, the entire economy and productive capacity of the nation was to be marshaled for war. If Napoleon had created the new reality of a nation in arms, it was World War I that gave birth to the idea of a nation at war.
On the eve of World War I, Europe was a tinderbox waiting to explode. National economies were prepositioned for war, large standing armies faced one another across unclear and disputed territorial boundaries, civilian populations were capable of being put into uniform within days of mobilization, the major powers were caught in a series of entangling alliances with small unstable states whose local conflicts could quickly escalate into war, an arms race fed a growing fear, and the strategic doctrine of the day required one to strike first. Superimposed upon it all was a political process which produced unstable political leadership that had to sustain itself by appearing strong and uncompromising on national security issues which, in turn, were driven by ideological and moral perspectives that made compromise almost impossible. When a stray shot was fired in the narrow streets of Sarajevo, it produced a genuine world war. And the lights went out all over Europe.
World War I became known as the "machine gun war," and it is estimated that fully 80 percent of all British ground casualties were caused by the machine gun. In a war of fixed positions, artillery guns grew larger, firing ever larger shells in concentrated barrages for days at a time. The siege mortar reached almost 42 inches in diameter, and railway guns fired 210 millimeter rounds 82 miles. Trench mortars reached 170 millimeter caliber, and could fire poison gas shells, mustard and chlorine, as well. Poison gas released from canisters made its appearance in 1915, and the age of chemical warfare was born. The gas mask became standard military equipment, and the pack howitzer for use by mountain infantry made its battlefield debut, as did the first antiaircraft guns.
A truly revolutionary development was the first operational battle tank. The early tanks were very unreliable as temperatures in the crew compartments often exceeded 100 degrees from the heat of the engine. By 1917, however, a much improved tank, the Mark IV, was introduced at the Battle of Cambrai, and history's first massed tank attack, involving over 476 tanks, took place. In the spring of 1918 the French introduced the lighter and faster Renault FT, the first tank to use a revolving turret. By the end of the war over 6,000 battle tanks had been built and deployed by Allied armies. The age of armor had begun.
The war at sea remained deadlocked. The British countered the German submarine threat by inventing the ship convoy. Of the 16,070 ships that sailed in British convoys, only 96 were lost to submarine attack. In 1915 the first use of the hydrophone made it possible to detect submarines by sound. A year later the first submarine was destroyed by yet another deadly invention, the depth-charge. By that time naval forces routinely used the seaplane, and in 1917 HMS Furious added the world's first operational flight deck to her forward superstructure. In the same year HMS Argus became the first naval vessel to be built with both a take-off and landing deck. With the incorporation of the American deck catapult and arresting gear, the prototype of the modern aircraft carrier was born.
The war quickened the development of the first aircraft designed for military use. The interrrupter gear made possible the mounting of machine guns on aircraft by allowing the guns to fire through a turning propeller. Improvements in design, materials, and structure of aircraft manufacture made it possible for aircraft to fly at 140 miles an hour at altitudes of 22,000 feet. The first bombers capable of 2,000 pound bomb loads appeared. The devastating capability of the strike aircraft was only a decade away.