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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