The mechanisation of war

In 1914 Britain entered what was meant to be “the war to end all wars”. This was precipitated by the collapse of a convoluted series of treaties designed to prevent just such a thing, and which unfortunately proved to be no more than a diplomatic house of cards.

It is a conflict that is defined in our consciousness through being the first to be comprehensively covered in word and pictures. Given extra power by the arrival of cinema and reinforced by the interviews of survivors in later years.

The wars that informed our countrymen of 1914 were entirely different, the Battle of Waterloo had been 100 years before and since then we had been mainly involved with the Boers and the expansion of Empire. Exotic tales of battles in far off lands and the lore of the “thin red line.”

There were even sections of the intelligentsia who celebrated the arrival of this, the first mechanised war, by seeing a promise of abstract efficiency and revelling in the assumed glory it would bring. Such dreams died with our forefathers in the mud of France.

However the unparalleled technological advances do provide some of the most visceral of our cultural touchstones with that time. A few years earlier HMS Dreadnaught had unleashed the creativity of the naval architects by blowing away pre-conceptions of what can be achieved.

By the outbreak of war the battleship was a steel colossus of phenomenal firepower. Aircraft that could only just stagger into the air and take photographs in 1914 developed into prowling birds of prey by the cease of hostilities; and had through giant, dread airships introduced the world to the notion of “total war.” As they laboured across the night sky, beneath them men crawled, hid and died in blasted landscapes that stood testament to our prowess in the industrialisation of munitions manufacture. Dehumanised not only by gasmask and cape but also by intent.

At such times ours is a difficult profession for people of conscience. We have a duty to provide the best we can, just as those in uniform have a duty to fight. All we can do is hope that the product of our labours is used wisely and for a greater good. Even with the knowledge that by making technological leaps forward we can help win a war more quickly, and that ultimately lives will be saved, to develop a more efficient way of taking a life must be a terrible thing.

I write this on the evening of 4th August 2014 in salute to those who not only fought and fell but also those who gave them the best hope for success and the best chance of survival. A moment of reflection on what faced the engineers when the lights went out 100 years ago, when it must have seemed that the darkness may last forever.