The Mechanisation of War

Over the last 100 years, warfare has become increasingly remote. Missiles can be fired from hundreds of miles away; drones can target a vehicle or building with pinpoint accuracy and aircraft can disappear over the horizon before the bombs they have dropped even hit the ground. When we look back at the trench warfare of the First World War it may seem archaic but already military forces were devising ways of moving further and further away from one another.

A severe shortage of shells during the spring of 1915 caused a crisis of catastrophic proportions on the front lines with 11,600 lives being lost at Aubers Ridge on 9 May alone. The British government recognised the short comings of its munitions production plans and formed the Ministry of Munitions, headed up by David Lloyd George who ensured a cohesive alliance between government and businesses. By September 1915, the effects of this alliance were being felt right the way across Europe as shell production stepped up and the nature of warfare began to change.

War Correspondent F. A. McKenzie, reported that fighting during the spring and summer of 1915 had involved 24 or 48 hours of heavy bombardment followed by an infantry ground attack which would attempt to storm and capture enemy trenches. During the shell crisis, the allies had been the weaker side, unable to retaliate against the might of the German artillery. When an allied bombardment ceased and infantry were sent over on a ground attack, enemy artillery simply opened fire and destroyed them wholesale. The newly formed Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry lost 75 per cent of their men in just such an episode in spring 1915, being decimated to 500 bewildered men and one junior officer.

By the autumn, however, the campaign had been transformed into one long artillery duel which often lasted for weeks at a time. Day and night, seven days a week, the guns fired remorselessly; hundreds and thousands of shells were being used.

This was modern warfare in its infancy. Soldiers lay in wait without seeing their enemy nor even their positions; just the barren, cratered, quagmire of no-mans-land. It was impossible to underestimate the vital importance of shell supplies at this stage of the war; the side who could fire the most shells would win the battle. McKenzie makes a reference to industrial action at the Woolwich Arsenal where some workers boycotted those who produced more shells than was required of them and suggests that those men should visit the trenches and see for themselves that it was not possible to have too many shells. There were also concerns about America joining the war. Undoubtedly, she would be a powerful and valuable boost to allied efforts, but for as long as America remained neutral, she was manufacturing and supplying shells to the allies on a massive scale. If America joined in the fray too soon, she would need the shells for her own troops and the supply would dry up.

The nature of warfare developed so quickly during the years 1914 – 1918 that changes could be charted on a monthly basis. The innovation on all sides was constant, with the drive always being to have maximum impact on the enemy with minimal damage to your own troops. The governments involved plunged their countries deeper and deeper into debt in order to meet the voracious demands of an increasingly mechanised war, while civilian war workers put their lives at risk in the hazardous work of munitions manufacture. The success, or failure, of these innovations; this debt and this danger was almost always measured by the loss of human life, both civilian and military.

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NOT ONE SPARK OF MANHOOD

In the months after Britain declared war on Germany in 1914, there was a tumultuous national response to the call to arms. Many hundreds of thousands of young men flocked to recruiting stations up and down the country, determined to play their part in the great adventure that was war.

Equally though, many hundreds of thousands of men did not flock to enlist; they stayed right where they were and carried on with their lives. The reasons for this were varied; many did not want to be involved in a war; many had well paid jobs and a family to support and many men contributed to the war effort in a civilian role. There was a large portion of society, however, that strongly felt that every able bodied man should be in uniform and weren’t shy of voicing their opinions in public.

An anonymous letter to the Yorkshire Herald on September 5th, 1914 makes no bones about the ‘cowards’ who remained at home:

Sir, I wonder if any of you men realise how very grave this war is. I think all men read newspapers. How you can sit quietly at home when you read how very terribly they are treating the English soldiers and the poor women and children. That should be quite enough to make men’s blood – young and old – boil and eager to help. Those who hold back have not one spark of manhood in them. Go all of you and be soldiers and men and not cowards. You need not be afraid; your people will not be forgot. It is a very paltry excuse. If some of you would spend less on drink and pleasure and give the money to your mothers and wives you would be all the better for it. Don’t hold back, but go all of you and offer to be a solder and do your best for your country.

From one who wishes you all the best of luck.

Six months later, the tone of anonymous letters remains unchanged with this ‘YORK GIRL’S HINT TO THE YOUNG MEN OF THE CITY in the Yorkshire Press:

Sir – Will you allow me a space in your valuable paper as regards the young men of York? It is a great shame to see so many able-bodied young men lurking about the streets, standing at street corners, and passing unpleasant remarks to passers by while so many of our brave men have sacrificed everything for our dear country. Every girl who honours her country should think it a downright shame to be seen talking with a young fellow without a khaki uniform and should try and get as many to join the Army as possible. There are many young women who would gladly take up their work if they did their duty to their fighting comrades.

I hope those who read this will take the hint from one who honours the soldiers – Yours etc J.R.

It’s interesting that most letters of this kind are both anonymous and from women. They are equivalent to issuing white feathers, which was usually done completely at random. This particular letter prompted a string of outraged replies from those were supposed to ‘take the hint’.

She writes nothing but piffle” “I am one of those who are assisting York for the Government and, like the employees at the Ordnance Depot, Fulford Road and the Clothing Depot, Leeman Road, khaki uniforms are not supplied to us” (A YOUNG MAN WITH A SWEETHEART)

As for those who are medically unfit, would she dare to say that they must join when they have been rejected twice?” (J W COOPER)

But perhaps the most damning response comes from a local government employee:

I suppose by her letter, J.R is one of those persons who would be quite at home stood at the street corners handing out white feathers to anyone not in uniform.” “Does JR think that those men found medically unfit want to walk around wearing a placard on their backs with ‘medically unfit’ written on?” “Let me remind JR that there are thousands of young men working practically night and day, untiring and unceasingly, and who are doing as much as our brave lads in the trenches-but have not the honour of wearing a uniform” (GOVERNMENT EMPLOYEE)

It seems exceedingly simplistic to suppose that a man in uniform was serving his country, whereas a man in civilian clothes was not; but by early 1915, soldiers were being instructed to wear their uniform at all times when in public with a view to shaming civilian men into enlisting. This kind of action led people into believing, through some ignorant notion of patriotism, that while uniform represented bravery, civilian clothes represented cowardice.

It was an incredibly divisive time that saw men constantly having to defend their masculinity and explain their medical background or employment status to anyone who challenged them. For those men who had tried to enlist, but had been rejected for medical reasons, it must have been particularly humiliating.

Although they may not have donned a uniform and fought in the trenches, most of the men who remained behind contributed to the war effort in coal mines, factories, offices and more. Fortunately, when we look back on the Great War, we do so with a great deal more common sense and understanding that some of the anonymous letter writers who plagued the community with their opinions via the local press.

Why Smartphones Are Like Cigarettes

In a departure from news related to the First World War…

I think my smartphone is every bit as addictive as cigarettes. Minus the nicotine, yes; minus the tobacco, yes. Minus the potential for life threatening illness as a result of continual usage, also yes.

However, the other morning, as I reached over to the bedside table, blurry-eyed and barely awake, fumbling about until my hand touched upon my phone, it occurred to me that this is exactly the behaviour of an addicted smoker. Not that I do that every morning mind you, there are mornings when I leap out of bed awake, alert and ready to meet the challenges of the day (not too many of those), mornings where I stretch out and enjoy the feeling of gathering consciousness, eking out those few precious minutes between being on time and being late. Sometimes, I might even find time for a sneaky read before facing the day.

But there are definitely days when I reach for my phone before my mind has properly switched on; a primal urge to communicate, or to check whether someone communicated with me. Blinking widely, I’ll open Twitter and scroll to check that nothing awful has happened while I slept. Then Snapchat, just in case friends have shared their wild night out; then Facebook, then… Until I’ve been through every available app, just in case.

This absurd behaviour got me thinking about how many times during the average day I will dig out my phone to do exactly that. Idly, randomly, check through the various channels of communication. When I’m standing in a queue; on the bus; on the train; having a cup of coffee; bizarrely, when I’m walking down the street – regardless of how busy that street may be. In fact, I’m quite likely to discuss the fact that the street is very busy and very hot with anyone who shares the same social network as me. I’m likely to check a weather app rather than look up at the sky, or Google a question the moment it occurs to me rather than spend a little while wondering. Even when I’m supposed to be watching a gripping drama on TV, the temptation to share the moment on Twitter can be overwhelming: ‘Haven’t got a clue what’s happening! #TheHonourableWoman’ for example. And what makes this so addictive, particularly with Twitter, is the hundred or so other people all watching the same drama, at the same time, typing the same kind of inanity.

When the cigarette analogy first occurred to me, I dismissed it as ridiculous. Then I became increasingly aware of how similar my behaviour was to that of a smoker. I decided to leave the smart phone alone for a day. How many times did I reach for it? I lost count. I fidgeted, physically and mentally when stood in a queue in the bank. What was the point in standing there, overhearing other people’s private conversations? I reasoned. Such a waste of social networking time! Where was the harm in a quick Tweet… And then, when I was having a coffee break, I found I was drumming my fingers and chewing the inside of my cheek. What’s the point of a coffee break if you can’t check in with ‘people’?? Before I knew it, I had dismissed the whole exercise as pointless and given in. Of course I could leave the smartphone alone if I wanted to…

The irony of this was not lost on me. Clearly, on an average working day, I couldn’t leave the blasted thing alone at all. Smokers get fag breaks I thought, the rest of us should get smartphone breaks. We too should have little perspex shelters at the corner of the car park where we can nip off for 10 minutes of guilt free technology.

I think I’ve created a problem for myself simply by becoming aware of the way I use my smartphone. I love being able to connect with people, of having a little window on the world, keeping up with the news, playing a silly game now and then. That little smartphone has added quite a lot to my life in the most unlikely of ways. I’ve met some lovely people; I’ve learned things and I’ve laughed a lot. What I don’t love about it is the constant urge to check it, just because it’s there. I don’t daydream as much as I used to; I don’t stare out of train windows and imagine all kinds of lives being lived in the houses that blur past me; I don’t people-watch to the same extent or tell myself stories. Instead, like a truculent child, I demand to be entertained, so I pull out my smartphone in the misconception that I will find more entertainment there than I will in the space around me.

When I’m abroad on holiday, I leave the phone alone. I hardly miss it, because I know I can’t use it in the same way as I can at home and I’m in an unfamiliar and wonderful place. By the end of my break, I don’t miss the phone at all. I have broken the habit. I have no urge to reach for it in every spare moment. I don’t feel jittery about missing a vital e-mail, text message or tweet. I am, without a doubt, calmer for not having to fight the urge. When I get home I promise myself that I will not return to the same obsessive use. I’ll use it perhaps once or twice a day, that’s all. I will be in charge of it, not the other way around. That should be easy enough right..?

Sure, that phone will never make me a burden on the NHS; it will never make my lungs seize up, have me wheezing, coughing and struggling for breath. But can I quit it? Can I put it down and not have even the slightest urge to check what the rest of the world is up to over a cup of coffee, on a train or while walking down a busy street?

No, because I enjoy it too much.

Waste of War and Waste of Peace

One particularly contentious debate that reared its head regularly throughout the Great War was how much it was all costing.  War is, and always has been, an expensive business.  The armed forces have to be paid for somehow; the continual demand for artillery and armaments has to be funded.  The greater and longer the war, the greater the demand for men and machinery and the more expensive it all gets.  When I say expensive, I’m talking billions, even a hundred years ago.  A staggering amount of money for any country to raise.

In 1915, Sir Leo Chiozza Money, MP and parliamentary private secretary to Prime Minister David Lloyd George, tackled fears of burgeoning national debt and extravagant wartime spending by arguing that war expenditure was, by and large, merely a transformation of pre-war national expenditure.

In peacetime, the argument goes, only about one-sixth of the National Income was invested in national infrastructure and, therefore, represented permanent value to the country.  The rest of National Income was being spent on ‘current consumption’ such as necessaries, comforts and luxuries.  Generally speaking, regardless of social class, people spent whatever little money they had spare after necessity on entertainment, amusement and luxuries and it was this kind of expenditure that was hit hardest during the war.

The National Income during the early years of the twentieth century was very badly distributed; it was reckoned that around half the National Income was taken by just an eighth of the population. Typically, a large proportion of the national wealth was spent wastefully by the elite few, while millions lived in poverty.

With the advent of war, the Government began raising funds through taxation and War Bonds; the greater part of which would inevitably come from the wealthy who could afford a higher level of investment in Bonds.  The theory goes that if £500 were taken from a wealthy person in the form of tax, it would curtail only their wasteful spending on luxuries and allow the Government to spend that money on essentials instead.  This would cut down wasteful spending simply by re-appropriating the wealth.  The argument was meant to prove that the Government was not wilfully wasting money on the war, but rather spending existing national wealth on it.

This seems to me to be something of a contrived argument that makes a little bit of sense, but only if you squint at it sideways.  It suggests that the wealthiest in society will be penalised more heavily than the poorest, but overlooks the fact that all the War Bonds had to be repaid by the Government after the war.  So those who had been able to ‘loan’ the most to the Government to fund the war would receive the biggest return on their investment.

It is a typical, yet patronising, approach of the time to dismiss the extravegance of wartime spending by suggesting that the wealthiest in society made the biggest sacrifice while the poorest felt little difference to their income or lifestyle.

I’d like to think that the intervening 100 years have seen a shift in this kind of perception, but I’m not so sure.

 

Source: The War Illustrated, Sept 1915

The Unsung Heroes of First World War Aviation.

During the Great War, observing the battlefields of France and Belgium from the air was a vital but dangerous pursuit and it wasn’t just the pilot who needed nerves of steel, it could be a terrifying experience for the passenger too.

In fact, as the editor of “The Aeroplane” magazine, C. G. Grey, wrote in 1915, while the pilot had control of an aircraft, his passenger – whether artillery ‘spotter’, scout or gunner, was powerless if anything happened to the pilot. Grey related a particular incident where a pilot flying over German lines had his leg smashed by shrapnel and became unconscious. The plane dived without control for a few thousand feet, the observer was helpless to do anything to save the situation. Fortunately, the pilot recovered consciousness and brought the machine back to an even keel, consulted with his passenger and managed to locate the nearest British aerodrome some 35 miles away. He remained conscious just long enough to safely land the aircraft before passing out again.

More incredible still though, is another account of an aircraft being badly hit at 6000 ft. The pilot on this occasion remained conscious to within 200 feet of the ground, when he finally blacked out yet still managed to safely land his plane.

The astounding heroism of both pilot and passenger of these fearsome yet fragile aircraft can never be underestimated. In another instance, a pilot was hit in the neck and jaw but managed to retain control of his aircraft while his observer bound up his wounds in mid-air with dressings from his first aid kit. Rather than turning the aircraft around and heading back towards safety, the men continued with, and completed, their mission. Both men received the D.S.O for their endeavours.

At the time of writing in the late summer of 1915, Grey was utterly perplexed at why no-one had thought to put an extra set of controls into aircraft which would enable the observer to take control in case of emergency. (It is worth remembering that parachutes were not used at this stage of the war either.) Grey pointed out that when casualty lists stated that: ‘attached Royal Flying Corps’ rather than ‘officer of the R.F.C’ had been killed, the man had been a passenger, powerless to save his own life in a plane that was hurtling towards the ground.

In fiction, pilots from the First World War are often portrayed as dashing heroes full of derring-do; it’s a glamorous image borne of genuine acts of immense bravery. But not much thought has been given to the bravery of the passengers; to those men willing to relinquish control and put their life directly into the hands of another.

Got to start somewhere…

So it looks like I have a blog!  This is all new to me, I’ve never blogged before and worry that I may not have much of interest to say.

However, I keep being told that as a writer, I should have a blog.  I know it makes sense.  Really I do.

I will try to entertain and inform; try really hard not to bore, but most of all, try not to fill an empty space with empty words for the sake of saying something.  A bit like now…

I guess the content of this blog will vary depending on what I’m working on.  In the course of research, I often stumble over interesting facts, anecdotes and stories that make me say “Well I never!” or something along those lines at any rate.  I figure that if they interest me, they’ll probably interest others too, but there is no room for them in my current project, or maybe just no relevance.  These little nuggets of joy either get filed away for ‘future reference’ or, more often, completely forgotten about.  To begin with, I’m pretty certain most of my posts will be connected in some way to the First World War.  I’m steeped in it at the moment and there is plenty of material to work with.  So many stories yet to be told.

So maybe this is the perfect platform to share these random bits of information?  I’m sure the crushing sound of silence will let me know if I’m wrong.