- Published: September 1, 2022
- Updated: September 1, 2022
- Language: English
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On the 28th of July 1914, war broke out in Eastern Europe following a series of unfortunate rivalries and political misunderstandings. This initial outbreak led to what is now known as The First World War. The beginning of the conflict brought much jubilation; the predominant mass of public opinion was pro war and even the moderate mindsets of the Liberal Party wavered towards Britain’s involvement. On August the 3rd, a pro war rally was held in Trafalgar Square on the highest level, thousands joined the procession, all campaigning for Britain to ‘step unto the breech’ and eliminate the threat of ‘The Hun’.
British Soldiers were guaranteed that war would be over by Christmas, and in many cases entire classes of schoolboys recruited together. This initial enthusiasm did not last. By the end of the first year had died on the battlefields and the rivers ran with blood. The deaths showed no sign of abating. So why did an approximated 12, 000, 000 brave soldiers die? Historians give a variety of explanations including that of incompetent leadership, each varying in their significance, and in this essay I will examine some of these arguments and subsequently attempt to establish which were the most important.
When discussing any rationally constructed argument involving the enormous loss of innocent life during the First War, we must consider what is widely regarded to be the most crucial component – technology. Although the advances in technology were possibly the reason for the millions of deaths, it cannot be mentioned without considering both the nature of trench warfare and Haig’s tactical incompetence. Despite this fact, I will attempt to try and attend to these matters individually to maintain a hierarchy of importance.
The machine gun was the weapon that changed the face of war. Previously an attack would have to be defended by many men, each with one non-automatic rifle. With the invention of the machine gun this all changed. It took a mere two men; one to feed the ammunition, the other to aim and fire. This saved on manpower and time, as up to 500 rounds could be fired per minute, giving it the power of 100 rifles. Invented in 1884 the Maxim Machine Gun was first used by the British in the Matabele War.
All one had to do was aim, fire and watch the bodies fall. It enabled mass killing to flow along the front lines of the western front, having most impact when implausible orders were sent to the advancing troops, something I will discuss later. Another devastating and even more horrific technological advancement (if possible) was the invention and deployment of Chlorine and Mustard gasses. First used by the Germans at the battle of Ypres in 1915, Chlorine gas destroyed the respiratory organs, causing a slow and painful death by asphyxiation.
This new development enabled armies to carry out devastating attacks with a minimal chance of friendly casualties. This weapon was not totally effective (as British troops learnt on the 25th September 1915 when the wind blew the cloud back at them) until 1916, when the ability to fire the canisters out of artillery cannons was formulated. In Robert Graves’ autobiography ‘Goodbye to all That’ he described how gas canisters next to his trench were accidentally detonated when moved killing his fellow soldiers.
However, it took little time before soldiers realised that any ammonia-based substance would repel the attack’s effect, and in late 1915, competent gas masks were circulated through the ranks. It was also discovered that ‘Phosgene’ was a better substitute to chlorine as it caused less coughing and therefore a greater poison intake. Mixtures of Chlorine and Phosgene gas were known as ‘White star’. A total of 1, 296, 853 men were affected in some way by gas attacks, and 91, 198 lost their lives. The remaining number suffered such long lasting and devastating injuries that their lives were as good as over anyway.
Chemical warfare is still something we are most afraid of. The threat of anthrax today causes much anxiety, and North Korea’s exploration into both nuclear and chemical weapons remains a controversial dilemma for the nations of the World. In addition to the massive loss of life that was a consequence of gas attacks, there was a new weapon that would later rule the battlefields, the tank. Originally ‘tank’ was the codename for a development in military technology. It was disguised as a vehicle for carrying water to the front line. Of course it was in fact a deadly weapon.
The first prototype, ‘Little Willie’ was a disappointing effort. Instead of carrying 10 passengers and travelling up to speeds of 5 miles per hour, it held 3 and went just over 3mph. Moreover, it had trouble on rough ground, and could by no means clear the 8-foot gaps between trenches as originally intended. On the 15th September 1916, the tank entered battle for the first time. Its entrance came at the battle of Flers-Courcelette an important offensive during the battle of the Somme, 49 tanks followed 12 divisions and took 2km of German territory.
Many men were killed, and others horribly disfigured as the 2-pound guns greatly increased the range of which shrapnel shards flew. A similar answer to the question (though not offering the same impact as technology) is that of the primitive levels of medical treatments. Little could be done about the many diseases that threatened the soldiers. There was no treatment for gangrene apart from to remove the limb, and in many cases the patient died from blood loss or pain anyway. Even such manageable viruses as influenza were an almost certain path to death.
Probably the most important factor in the enormous number of infection related deaths was the lack of one specific drug; the antibiotic penicillin. Without this a soldier had a good chance of contracting a lethal infection from the smallest of flesh wounds. The introduction of penicillin into the Second World was the difference between 2 and 10 million deaths. It Was Winston Churchill who famously said the British army were a band of ” lions led by donkeys”. And he was not wrong; this was an important factor in determining why so many died on the western front.
The argument was and was that the British General Command (in particular that of General Sir Douglas Haig) was not capable of commandeering a war. The two most important and widely recognised examples of this are the battles of Ypres and the Somme. The Somme was originally the brainchild of French Commander in Chief Joseph Joffre (it was primarily an attempt to disable German Manpower) However, due to the German offensive on Verdun in February of 1916, it became a largely British assault, and was placed in the unsteady hands of Haig.
His plan was to have an eight-day preliminary bombing to destroy the wire and then send troops over the top and into German trenches. The introductory shelling campaign was unsuccessful (any soldier could have told him that shell fire merely lifts the wire, often leaving it in a greater tangle than previously). On the first morning of July as the opening whistles sounded, French and British troops poured over the top. By sunset 58, 000 casualties had been suffered and one third of this number were dead making it the worst day in British Army history.
Haig, not deterred, ordered further attacks believing the enemy was becoming brittle. This was not the case. Upon reaching the pristine wire, troops found themselves hailed with gunfire, and could do nothing but watch as their friends dropped around them. Haig even saw to it that the advancing soldiers were fish in a barrel. As the bulk of the professionally trained armed forces had been eliminated within the first throws of war, it was left to the conscripts to execute tactical manoeuvres, and Haig just didn’t trust them.
He believed that they were to ignorant to effectively perform under such pressure, so he had them proceed at walking pace, shoulder to shoulder. Waves and waves of men went over the top, and one can only imagine the mentally devastatingly and horrific task of walking to your death over the bodies of your dead comrades. Another similar tragedy was that of the third battle of Ypres. Originally captured by the German Army in the first year of the war, the small town of Ypres quickly fell back into the hands of Allied troops in October of 1914.
The second major battle for Ypres took place in 1915, and was a further attempt by the German troops to retake the important high ground from the French and Algerian troops stationed there. After Mustard gas attacks the French fled, leaving a seven mile breach in the line. Luckily Allied forces were able to hold the city, but heavy bombardment from German artillery (enhanced by their height advantage) practically flattened the city to the ground. Taking place in Belgium, the third battle was generallyly known as the Battle of Passchendale.
It played host to some of the worst conditions man has had to face in combat. The battle took place between July and November of 1917, and was again spearheaded by Sir Douglas Haig. The tactics used had much in common with those employed in The Battle of the Somme, and unsurprisingly had just as little effect. A ten-day shelling from 3000 guns took many German lives, but in doing so ruined the sewage systems developed along the front lines. This caused enormous complications, as the perpetual rainfall had now merged with the derelict sewage pipes to create what could be described as little more than a swamp.
Eventually after around 310, 000 casualties and a gain of 2km, Haig called off the offensive. Haig made countless mistakes when formulating his attacks, but probably the most consequential move he took was to ignore intelligence reports. He was told that shelling would not damage the wire, he knew many machine gun posts were still active when he sent his men over the top and above all he knew that the soldiers he sent into battle would not return. His misunderstanding of a war of attrition was pure ignorance.
He had the available facilities to research German losses, but he didn’t and as a result his manoeuvres were constructed on incorrect assumptions about the health of the enemy army. He treated men as mass instead of individuals, lacking in any remorse Haig could arguably be held responsible for the deaths of millions. At the time of the Passchendale offensive, he was widely criticised for not abandoning the attack long after any strategic value was lost.
He could also have used his tanks to a greater effect, during the Flers-Courcelette, he was advised to use them in bulk in a mass attack, and instead he split up the battalions, removing the strength of their impact. Many perceive him to be an incompetent fool, but conversely, without decisive leaders, we would have lost. It is argued that his determined nature was the only way in which we got anything done, and had a General of lesser nerve been in command, we would not have progressed. My final point is that the nature of Trench Warfare meant that many more men died than had to.
Trench Warfare is a fundamentally slow and painful process, it naturally involves much tactical manoeuvring and in many cases is not always won by large offensives. The major reason that trench warfare creates so many casualties is the phenomena of No Mans Land. This could range from 500 yards to 2 miles, and was never the same in two places. The overall objective is to capture the enemy trench, and this can only be achieved by sending hundreds upon thousands of hapless men over the top.
This inevitably endangers each and every person’s life, and in the majority of cases takes it. Not only is there the danger of death in no mans land, but life in the trenches itself posed many threats. Infections, trench foot, gangrene, influenza, dysentery, the list of potentially fatal diseases is endless (as I have discussed) and a surprising number suffered at the hands of illness. Of course the number of deaths in the trenches could have been reduced had control been in different hands, but as it stands, life in the belly of the beast was unavoidably dangerous.
Just to give it some perspective, the average life expectancy of soldiers in the trenches was under 3 weeks. In conclusion, it is safe to say that the role of poor military leadership was an important factor in the 12 million deaths of WW1, particularly along the Western front. However, it is not the most crucial. The events and factors all link inextricably, and one is not complete without the other. This does not create a hierarchy, as obviously some are more important than others. Ultimately, it should never be left to a few men to decide the fate of millions.
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