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story:World War One


Images with this text:
A Britisk Mark 1 Tank moves across the battlefield.
After a few weeks, when massed armies had swept across parts of Europe, the war became immobilised. The armies dug in and two opposing lines of trenches, guns and barbed wire spread unbroken for hundreds of miles from the Channel coast to the Swiss border. Although the American Civil War and the Boer War had given a few clues, no one had expected this stalemate.
It was brought about by the defensive efficiency of the new weapons held by both sides - mass produced and accurate rifles, machine guns and artillery. Allied generals have long been criticised for being drawn into deadlock but given the equality of armaments on both sides it was almost inevitable.
A British Officer later recalled:
'To the contention that our true strategy would have been to find a way round, it is replied that there was no way round, or, if there was, it was not the shortest way home.'
As the attrition dragged on military planners looked for an end to the deadlock. New forms of weaponry held out a promise of this. The combatant nations were for the most part heavily industrialised - with strong domestic bases in science and engineering. These resources were exploited in the search for novel armaments. The chemical weapons developed in Germany and the first tanks, secretly built and tested in England, illustrate this military-industrial collaboration.
In addition to these new developments some fledgling technologies were improved and greatly expanded. Aviation effectively came of age - establishing the basic blueprint for the military role of aircraft in later wars. Beyond the trenches submarines proved their potential to find and destroy shipping in the open seas.
Images with this text:
The trench became the familiar environment for soldiers serving in the front line.
Feeding the war machine required huge amounts of manpower. These Chinese labourers, working at an ammunition depot in France, were among tens of thousands of men employed from countries not directly involved in the conflict.
Chemistry and war
'In no future war will the military be able to ignore poison gas. It is a higher form of killing.'
Fritz Haber, 1919
The German chemist Fritz Haber was the key figure in the emergence of chemical weapons. When war broke out he placed his laboratories - the Institute for Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry - at the service of the German government.
Haber was enthusiastic about developing poison gas weapons, believing they could break the trench-bound stalemate of the Western Front.
In April 1915, Haber was in the German front line directing the first large-scale gas attacks. Satisfied with their initial success he returned home. Shortly afterwards, his wife Clara shot herself with his army revolver. A talented scientist, with a PhD in chemistry, she was said to be devastated by her husband's work and its horrifying consequences.
Although ostracised for his wartime activities, Haber was controversially awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1918 - for his pre-wartime work. Along with fellow chemist Carl Bosch, he had discovered a means to chemically 'fix' nitrogen. During the latter stages of the war, this 'Haber-Bosch process' was used to keep Germany supplied with explosives. Without it, the war may not have lasted as long as it did.
Images with this text:
Fritz Haber - the father of modern chemical warfare.
Clara Haber. The day after her suicide, Fritz Haber left for the Eastern Front, leaving the funeral arrangements to others.
Chemical weapons
Chemical warfare was born during the First World War. Cruel and indiscriminate, it had a powerful impact on society. It symbolised a new type of conflict and raised fears that still haunt us today.
Germany was the first of the combatants to develop and use chemical weapons. On 22 April 1915, near the devastated Belgian city of Ypres, tons of chlorine gas were discharged from several thousand cylinders. As the slow moving gas reached the Allied lines, bemusement turned to terror as soldiers choked on the yellow-grey smoke. Trenches were abandoned as men fled for their lives.
Within days Allied soldiers were issued with crude respirators and within months they too were using poison gases. In effect a technological battle began in which developments in gas weaponry were in turn countered by improvements in protective equipment.
In time, phosgene and mustard gas were added to the armoury. Like chlorine, both were respiratory poisons although mustard gas also caused dreadful skin blistering. Other gases were tried, but these remained the most heavily used.
By the end of the war the production of poison gas was at its height but by then soldiers were better protected. They were drilled in gas safety, early warning systems were in place and good quality respirators were standard issue. Thousands were still incapacitated by gas, sometimes for life, but after 1915, death rates reduced significantly. Poison gas became a debilitating weapon rather than a purely killing one - another contribution to the suffering that was life in the trenches.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! - An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime...
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
Wilfred Owen, 1917
This excerpt from Wilfred Owen's poem Dulce Et Decorum Est, written in 1917, conveys the horror and chaos of a chemical weapons attack.
Images with this text:
Soldiers wearing some of the earliest masks provided for protection against gas attacks. Issued in May 1915, they were little more than wads of cotton - to be dipped in a solution of bicarbonate of soda and held over the face.
Indian troops stationed in the Balkans undergo gas mask drill.
Soldiers blinded by gas queue at an Advanced Dressing Station, near Bethune, France, April 1918.
Chemical warfare quickly made its mark on popular culture. Cartoon from Punch, October 1916. A nurse rushes into a room, where a group of young boys are blowing smoke at hooded dolls. The text reads: Frantic nurse: 'Gracious goodness, children! What are you doing?' Youthful chorus: 'Gas Attack.'
'Terribly noisy, oily, hot, airless and bumpy!'
2nd Lieutenant Gordon Hassell, 8th Battalion, Tank Corps
The British tank was the realisation of a long-held military vision of a large armoured fighting vehicle - a 'landship'.
In the early months of the war interest in such armoured vehicles led to the establishment of a government 'Landships Committee', intended to assess new designs.
The machine that heralded the first generation of tanks was designed by a Major Ernest Swinton. Its novelty lay in the use of metal caterpillar tracks for propulsion. A first prototype was tested in great secrecy in the summer of 1915 and by the following February a redesigned model impressed in a series of trials. The Army ordered 100 machines shortly afterwards.
Seen as a means of breaking the trench stalemate, tanks made their debut on the Somme battlefield in September 1916. They were not a great success. Rather than a mass attack, less than 50 'Mark I' tanks were involved. Several broke down while others - their crews working in great discomfort - simply lost their way.
The following year a Tank Corps was officially formed. That November nearly 400 tanks broke through the German front line at Cambrai. Although this tactical success was not consolidated, the attack marked a turning point.
The impact of the tank on the First World War was minimal. Of greater significance was the marking of a major change in the nature of ground warfare. By the Second World War the tank had become the dominant force on the battlefield, helping to prevent a recurrence of the trench-bound warfare of the earlier war.
Images with this text:
A British Mark I tank moves across the battlefield towards Thiepval, France, 1916.
Once tanks had started to see action on the Western Front their appearance became the subject of great speculation. Cartoon from Punch, September 1916 displaying many strange looking tanks. 'A few conceptions, picked up from press accounts here and there, of what the 'tanks' are really like.'
Front of a protective mask made of leather and chain mail, worn by British tank crew members c.1917-18.
Inside a protective mask made of leather and chain mail, worn by British tank crew members c.1917-18.
Aviation was little more than a novelty in 1914 - just over a decade after the Wright brothers' first powered flight. When war began the few aircraft held by opposing armies were small and unreliable.
However, it was quickly seen that aircraft were invaluable for observation. Aircrews could see where enemy troops were massing and warn of likely attacks. They also worked closely with long-range heavy artillery. Heavy guns, often firing several miles, needed to have their aim assisted by airborne observers reporting back by radio.
Observation was the key driver for aviation development. Indeed, the main task of the fighter pilots was to shoot down these observers. Fighters only fought each other as each side tried to dominate the air and protect the observer aircraft.
Engaged in dogfights high above the squalor and slaughter of the trenches, pilots were often viewed with envy by the infantry. A few, like the German 'ace' Manfred von Richthofen - the 'Red Baron' - became folk heroes. But for most airmen the reality was far less glamorous. They were often young and poorly trained and death rates were very high.
By the end of 1918 fighters were also being used for ground attack although with little effect compared to the firepower on the ground. Long-range bombers were also bringing the war directly to the Home Front. They caused some civilian casualties - and widespread outrage - although again their military effect was negligible. However, the potential of these new roles for aircraft was clear and the scene was set for the future when the devastating possibilities of air power would be fully realised.
Images with this text:
British Sopwith Camels stationed at Humieres, France.
Aircraft were chiefly used for reconnaissance. The French village of Passchendaele recorded before its bombardment in 1917.
The French village of Passchendaele recorded after its bombardment in 1917. The village was completely destroyed
The Farnborough-designed SE5A - the most effective British fighter engaged on the Western Front.
Submarines were an insignificant force at the outbreak of the First World War. Within two years this had changed drastically. After a massive building programme on both sides submarines became potent weapons.
Through necessity, Germany became the greatest exponent of undersea warfare. In November 1914 the British navy had established a highly effective trade blockade against Germany. Unable to compete directly with Britain's sea power, Germany sought to impose a different kind of blockade. It hoped to starve Britain of the food and industrial raw materials brought in by ship.
Early successes against British naval ships heralded the arrival of the U-boats 'Unterseeboote' but it was merchant shipping that became the primary target. Powered with a diesel engine for surface use and a battery motor when submerged, U-boats could spend long periods at sea. Armed with torpedoes and deck-mounted cannons they began to patrol Britain's coastal waters and beyond.
At first attacks were generally restricted to British merchant ships but in January 1917, Germany announced unrestricted submarine warfare. Despite protests from neutral countries, all ships thought to be bringing supplies to Britain or France became potential targets. For a while this policy was effective. In April alone, over 800,000 tons of Allied and neutral shipping was sunk.
The campaign was unsustainable and improvements in defensive tactics ultimately led to its failure. The introduction of a convoy system - whereby groups of merchant ships sailed together, often with a naval escort - provided greater protection. It also exposed U-boats to depth charges, a ship-based weapon being used to great effect by the end of 1917. Coastal minefields further impeded U-boat activity and by early 1918 more and more supplies were reaching British shores. The submarine war was effectively over.
Assets with this text:
An audio where a British merchant seaman remembers the sinking of the Lusitania off the coast of Ireland on 7 May 1915.
German U-boat U36, c.1914 15.
The U-Boats' most famous victim. Launched in 1906, the Lusitania made her maiden voyage from Liverpool to New York on 7th September 1907. At that time she was the largest ship in the world.
A sign asking the public to remember the Lusitiana and enroll today. The Lusitania was torpedoed off the coast of Ireland In May 1915. Many American citizens were amongst the hundreds who drowned. This incident, and sinking of more American vessels in 1917, certainly contributed to the United State's decision to enter the war against Germany. The tragedy was also used to help boost enlistment.
All ships became potential enemies. U-boat U157 holding up the Spanish vessel 'Infanta Isabel de Bourbon', March 1918.
The propaganda value of U-boat attacks on neutral shipping was greatly exploited by the Allies. Cartoon from Punch, November 1916, where two men have saved themselves from the sea and are sitting on the mast from a ship. In the background two ships are going down, one under the Swedish and the other under the Norwegian. The text reads: A Strain on the Affections. Norwegian (to Swede): 'What - you here, too? I thought you were a friend of Germany?' Swede: 'I was.'

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