It was the first modern mechanized industrial war in which material resources and manufacturing capability were as consequential as the skill of the troops on the battlefield.
Exactly one month earlier, on 28 June 1914, a Serbian nationalist had assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife, Sophie, in Sarajevo, Bosnia.
The first major war of the 20th century was unlike those that had come before. Machine guns, “capable of bringing down row after row of soldiers from a distance on the battlefield,” replaced hand-to-hand combat. Trench warfare was inevitable.
The British introduced tanks in 1916, which worked in concert with airplanes and artillery. Submarines. Ships with guns that could reach 20 miles inland. Field radios and telephones. And then there was chemical warfare.
When Germany’s plan for a swift military victory went unrealized, the pace of war bogged down. Both sides tried to break this stalemate through the use of force. In previous wars, victory was achieved through territorial supremacy; in World War I it was accomplished by simply outlasting the opponent—a “war of attrition.” When fighting first broke out in August 1914, many hoped the war would be short-lived; few predicted a conflict that would last for more than four years and scar an entire generation with its unprecedented brutality.
Yet one fundamental technology from prior wars remained: the war horse.
The British Army alone deployed more than a million horses and mules… Britain sent more hay and oats by weight than ammunition to France.
On 30 March 1918, for example, General Jack Seely led “one of the last great cavalry charges in history.” That day in France, 1,000 Canadian Cavalry horses plus “a brigade of cowboys, Mounties, clerks, and Americans … [brought] German advancement to a halt.”
Timeline context: Henry Ford’s first Model T had rolled out of the factory about 10 years earlier, 01 October 1908. There were fewer than 200,000 automobiles in the U.S. at the beginning of the year.
However, the United States was initially a bystander. President Woodrow Wilson pledged neutrality, reflecting public opinion. But Germany sank U.S. merchant ships; civilians died.
On 06 April 1917, Wilson asked Congress for “a war to end all wars” that would “make the world safe for democracy.”
The casualties suffered by the participants in World War I dwarfed those of previous wars: some 8,500,000 soldiers died as a result of wounds and/or disease. The greatest number of casualties and wounds were inflicted by artillery, followed by small arms, and then by poison gas (emphasis added).
Fertility rates in Europe collapsed.
“Civilization at the Breaking Point”
H.G. Wells (yes, that Wells) warned us of the horrors of the technologies of war on 27 May 1915 in a New York Times essay.
The submarine and aircraft … present mankind with a choice of two alternatives… either mankind must succeed within quite a brief period of years now in establishing a world State, a world Government of some sort able to prevent war, or civilization as we know it must break up into a system of warring communities, perpetually on the warpath, perpetually insecure and engaged in undying national vendettas…
… if the human intelligence is applied continuously to the mechanism of war…it will therefore progressively make war more catastrophic and less definitive…
The course of human history is downward and very dark, indeed, unless our race can give mind and will now unreservedly in unprecedented abundance to the stern necessities that follow logically from the aircraft bomb and the poison gas and that silent, invisible, unattainable murderer, the submarine.
Wells had a crystal ball. World War II began about 21 years after WWI ended.
WWII gave birth to the United Nations (24 October 1945).
On 24 February 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine. It was not the first European war since 1945 but has brought the world to the brink of another world war.
The assassination that triggered four years of war
Ferdinand was heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire (1867-1918). In 1908, Austria-Hungary had “annexed” Bosnia and Herzegovina. Serbian nationalists conspired to kill Ferdinand because they believed those territories were part of Serbia.
Austria-Hungary determined that the proper response to the assassinations was to prepare for a possible military invasion of Serbia. After securing the unconditional support of its powerful ally, Germany, Austria-Hungary presented Serbia with a rigid ultimatum on July 23, 1914, demanding, among other things, that all anti-Austrian propaganda within Serbia be suppressed, and that Austria-Hungary be allowed to conduct its own investigation into the archduke’s killing.
Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on 28 July 1914, one month after the archbishop was killed.
The war ended on 11 November 1918.
The allied countries:
- Great Britain
- New Zealand
- South Africa
- United States
The central powers:
- Turkey (Ottoman Empire)
About that battlefield photo
At 30 years old, James Francis “Frank” Hurley joined the Australian Imperial Force as its official photographer. He arrived in Belgium on 23 August 1917 after two years in Antarctica with Australian explorer Ernest Shackleton.
He arrived in Europe just prior to the Third Battle of Ypres (unofficially known as the Battle of Passchendaele), “one of the bloodiest campaigns on the western front.”
His rank was honorary captain, “but the troops, seeing how he took risks to get his pictures, dubbed him ‘the mad photographer’.”
His job was to document the war effort, to provide images to the media, and to capture the heroism of the Australians to show those back home.
At the time, his images were controversial because he combined negatives to create one photo. He wrote:
“None but those who have endeavored can realize the insurmountable difficulties of portraying a modern battle by the camera. To include the event in a single negative, I have tried and tried, but the results are hopeless… Now, if negatives are taken of all the separate incidents in the action and combined, some idea may then be gained of what a modern battle looks like.”