Benjamin David Curley
The First World War is unfortunately one of those major historical events that has gotten overlooked within a generation. A massive world-wide war that killed millions that was instantly overshadowed by its successor. The story of the First World War is a terrifying example of what happens when technology outpaces strategy, and when nations become too pot-committed to a struggle. You might be able to mentally excuse your choice as a Prime Minister or President saying 1,000 lives is worth this bit of land, or it is worth hitting this neighbor before they hit us. The whole thing spirals when you have 1,000,000 live lost. Can you go to your people and say that Alsace-Lorraine is worth a million people? Would they accept that, or would that break the collective psyche of a nation. So instead you say you’re fighting against monsters, who will murder nuns, drink blood, and wont stop until you and your way of life are destroyed. A million lives versus that great existential threat is something that you can get people to understand. Each of the major players went into the war with goals that look similar to the goals we saw in the previous few centuries of gun powder conflict.
We must remember the map of Europe in the early 1910s is not the map we know it today, this was still an age of Empire, of gathering land by conquest and a Europe that was adjusting to the very existence of a unified Germany which hadn’t happened since the Holy Roman Empire. Germany as we mostly know it today had spent hundreds of years as a mishmash of hundreds of principalities and was only unified 1871. The German Empire knew it was still growing pushing East as Russia was looking to push West. The prevailing German though at the time of the war was that conflict with Russia was inevitable as the empires closed in on one another, and it’s better to do it now. The Russians on the other hand saw the state of the other old empires of Europe (Austo-Hungary and the Ottomans) and their decay would cause a power vacuum that would be filled by themselves, the Germans, or a new Slavic empire that might push back on the lands they controlled. Russia was a state constantly on the verge or revolution (having put down several in the preceding decades) and the Czar was worried about any possible signs of weakness. France had been defeated in the Franko-Prussian war of 1870 and was looking to reclaim the lands lost that it considered to be theirs (Alsace and Lorraine). Britain was being challenged on the global scale by the new upstart German Empire and was worried that if left alone Germany would continue to catch up to it in naval power and would be able to challenge it for it’s imperial holdings. Austria-Hungary was a fading and struggling empire that hoped defeating Serbia would help prevent Russia from becoming the dominate power in the Balkans, and was worried what an empowered Russian backed Serbia might do to motivate it’s local Serbian populations and destabilize the Empire even more. It saw Serbian independence as an existential threat to the continued existence of the Empire. Finally, The Ottoman Empire (commonly called The Sick Man of Europe) was hoping that reclaiming its lost Balkan territory and perhaps claiming British held Middle Eastern territory as a way to regain its former status.
This mishmash of national war aims matched with an intricate web of treaties and alliances put Europe in an interesting position. The end of the 1800s saw great statesmen weaving a web of treaties with the expectation that if one nation decided to pursue the desire for land and power that had been the norm in Europe for centuries it would have to contend with the fact it couldn’t just fight one nation, several Empires would be brought into the fighting at the same time. No more would a Napoleon-styled leader be able to pick apart Europe piece by piece, the war would jump to the stage where the continent was unified against their aggression. Unfortunately this meant when the war was ultimately declared when Austria-Hungary invaded Serbia suddenly the world was mobilized for a continental war.
Now that the war was on and the major powers of Europe had been brought into conflict we now have the first examples of one of the major themes of the war. Technology had far outpaced the realities of modern warfare. As the Churchill quote goes “Generals are always prepared to fighting the last war”. Throughout the first weeks and months of the war you had massive armies moving around Europe looking to meet for a decisive field battle where a cavalry charge would sweep the enemy off the field and win the day. This quickly pushed up against the realities of modern rifles, artillery, and machine guns. The opening of the war was a hugely bloody affair where casualties far outstripped anyone’s projections, leading to the armies digging in and the now famous trenches of the Western Front. We now had armies dug in fighting a new style of warfare and not adequately adjusting to it in time. You also see these armies holding their cavalry in reserves for years still thinking that “we break the line here, then send in the cavalry to sweep the enemy up” despite seeing the terrible losses a cavalry charge receives when engaging placed modern artillery and machine guns.
To the time frame of or film specifically by 1917 we now had entered the fourth summer of constant warfare. The armies were exhausted, and everyone’s dreams of a quick glorious war were now being replaced with the realities of fully industrialized modern warfare. We now had 35,000 miles of trenches stretching across Europe. We have a tendency to look back on wars with a sense of inevitability, we know how it ends so of course it was always going to go this way, but at this point in time both sides of the war could easily have broken. 1917 was a summer of French Army mutinies, where French soldiers were refusing to take part in any offensive actions ordered by their leaders. Knowing the war ends in a defeat for the Central Powers we may forget how close the Entente powers came to breaking. Coinciding with this bottoming of morale came the German plan to move their forces to the Hindenburg Line. The Germans spent the winter of 1916-1917 building a brand new defense in depth series of trenches behind their own lines, fully prepared with concrete bunkers and pillboxes designed to withstand Entente artillery bombardments, let the advancing soldiers get to the first line of trenches, and then push them back out. The plan being to put themselves in a position where the Entente would waste their remaining manpower against their new strong defenses, and force their commanders to be the ones telling their already mutinying soldiers to run into no man’s land through the barbed wire and machine gun fire. While ultimately unsuccessful, this is the scenario our heroes are trying to stop a British attack in.
Bachelors in History from Western Washington University
Attending Woodring College of Education to become a secondary school teacher
Incidents the film touches on:
World War I: Spring 1917 - Acts of total war like bombing civilians, Operation Alberich & the Hindenburg Line, Battle of Passchendaele
1917 (2019) Note: the film will be differentiated from the year indicated by italics
Summary: “During World War I, two British soldiers -- Lance Cpl. Schofield and Lance Cpl. Blake -- receive seemingly impossible orders. In a race against time, they must cross over into enemy territory to deliver a message that could potentially save 1,600 of their fellow comrades -- including Blake's own brother.”
Summary - Spring (March - June), 1917
Although many important historical events occurred in 1917 globally (the Russian Revolution took place in March; the United States entered the war in April), our focus will remain with the British, French, and Germans on the Western Front as this is what 1917 focuses on. It should be noted that the absence of the Russians later in this year allowed for Germany to focus entirely on the Western Front, but by the time more forces from the East could be brought to bear, the war would end.
Spring 1917 is, what Doran Cart (senior curator of the National WWI Museum) describes as “very fluid”. Although for most of the war the Central powers and the Triple Entente had been stalemated and reduced to trench warfare, 1917 marked the beginning of some major changes.
The German Army pulled a tactical retreat dubbed Operation Alberich and set themselves up at the Hindenburg Line. This was a tactic utilized to prepare for future operation sin 1918. It was a strategic withdrawal, and not an “explicit retreat”. This movement caused great confusion among British forces and provided a degree of uncertainty – Mendes provides more context on this: “…had the Germans surrendered, withdrawn, or were they lying in wait?”
To make matters worse, the French held a substantial mutiny from May to June of 1917. This forced the British to take the leading role n the front lines while the French searched for ways to quell the mutiny and return to the fight.
The film’s events take place shortly before the Battle of Poelcappelle which was a smaller skirmish as part of the Battle of Passchendaele/Third Battle of Ypres.
The term “Total War” can be summed up by four main points, according to Khan Academy: mobilization, refusal to compromise, soldier and civilian roles becoming blended together, and the total control of society by a government. In 1917, France's new Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau declared: "We present ourselves in the single aim of total warfare… My foreign policy and my home policy are the same. At home I wage war. Abroad I wage war… I shall go on waging war." World War I, by these descriptions, was a total war. World War I, in many ways, was the first example of total war.
In terms of scale, WWI mobilized people like no other war. 1914 shocked people initially, but they quickly mobilized and volunteered at recruitment centers. Women volunteered to become nurses, make weapons, planted “war gardens” and bought war bonds. Governments shifted most of their industrial production to creating war-related materials and products. Military conscription brought up war-time numbers to unprecedented heights.
Historian Kimberly A. Redding says: “Some 65,000,000 men were mobilized between 1914 and 1918. While not all saw frontline service, the casualty rate (killed, wounded, and missing in action as a percentage of those mobilized) was over 50 percent among AustroHungarian, Australian, Bulgarian, French, German, Russian, and ANZAC forces. 8.5 million soldiers died and at least twice that number were wounded. Of these, at least 9.5 million were considered permanently disabled….”
Hague conventions of how to conduct warfare between “Imperial” (non-colonial nations) were ignored during the war. Germany invaded Belgium without officially declaring war. Poison gas was utilized. Flooding of civilian land attempted to destroy anything useful for the war effort. German brutality in Belgium, in bombing civilians using Zeppelins, and sinking of civilian shipping gave ammunition to the Triple Entente to further drive the war effort.
Zeppelins became less and less useful as more were shot down. 1917 marked the first air raid on a civilian population by an airplane – a German Gotha bi-plane accidentally hit Folkestone instead of London. This location had never been bombed previously, and so casualties reached the 60’s, mostly civilian. This would be a foreshadowing to further total war attacks on civilians, made the norm later down the line in the Spanish Civil War and World War II. A notable exception to these strategic bombing allowances was France, who restrained themselves from conducting strategic bombing campaigns.
Private companies, because of their supply of ammunition, weapons, and materials allowed the, to make massive profits. Environmental impacts developed as constant shelling and resource tapping made certain areas of the Western Front completely unrecognizable from the prewar era. In historian Tait Keller's words, "the distinction between modern war and modern industry had, in many ways, faded. Transformations to the natural world occurred in places outside the combat zones. People far from the fighting felt the war in their everyday lives through its long environmental reach."
Governments censored the press and the propaganda machines on both sides were in full swing. People who were behind the war effort early on had grown cynical and tired by 1917. Total war would more or less begin here but would be even more amplified in the coming decades.
Operation Alberich & The Hindenburg Line
The code name Unternehmen Alberich was used to describe the operation German soldiers conducted in February and March of 1917. It was designated as a strategic withdrawal back to the Hindenburg Line, a much more heavily fortified line.
The Germans shortened the front by 25 miles and freed up 13 divisions. For context, the Germans abandoned more French territory that that gained by the Entente from 1914 until now.
The Germans debated the positives and negatives of the operation. Some felt it should only be done as a method of last resort. Shortening the front and freeing up divisions could lead to new maneuvers. Defenses in the current line were miserable and near destroyed. Eventually, the Kaiser himself ordered the withdrawal.
The Germans utilized a scorched earth policy and placed booby-traps in concealed and strategic locations. Entire villages were flattened, roads and railways were destroyed, trees were felled and even wells were poisoned. A Fifth Army report made in March of 1917 states “Roads in the shelled area have practically ceased to exist.” The British were left trying to understand exactly what the Germans were doing as they abandoned the dregs of no man’s land. Village by village, ridge by ridge, the Germans retreated under protection of rear-guard machine-gun teams. The Royal Engineers had the unenviable task of clearing the way, which proceeded painfully slow.
Although a successful strategic withdrawal, the scorched earth policy did no favors for propaganda against Germany. Intermittent British air reconnaissance and bad weather prevented the British from properly identifying both the Hindenburg Line and the withdrawal, which was corrected later in early 1917. This strategic withdrawal would eventually lead to one of the largest and costliest battles of the war.
Battle of Passchendaele/Third Battle of Ypres
In July of 1917, Flanders became the battleground between British and German. French mutiny in May pushed the British forward into a leading role against the German military. Sir Douglas Haig, the British Commander in Chief, mistakenly believed the Germans were on the verge of collapse and surrender and only needed a push.
The Battle of Passchendaele occurred early on into the nearly three-month ordeal that was the 3rd Battle of Ypres. The capture of Messines Ridge, south of Ypres, was aided by powerful mines being laid way under the German front line. This ridge was completely destroyed but the victory was not followed up with quick enough before the Germans could regroup. After two weeks of intense shelling the Entente assaulted near Pilckem. Although they suffered heavy casualties, the Entente pushed forward and took many German prisoners. The heavy rains and thick mud that develop in mid-August slowed the assault and prevented many further gains, especially at Langemarck.
After taking control of a nearby ridge in September, Haig encouraged a push towards the Passchendaele ridge. The German army was dug in and made the Entente’s attack on their positions costly. Reinforcements that I mentioned above arrived from the Eastern front and resupplied the German positions with fresh soldiers.
Haig was eventually successful in taking the village of Passchendaele but at the cost of 310,000 British casualties and 260,000 German casualties. No substantial breakthrough was gained and continued to show the futility in trench warfare so iconic of the First World War.
Some eyewitness accounts of the battle:
Bryan Frayling, minelayer, Royal Engineer, destruction of the ridge
“I had hoped very, very much that I would push the switch in that blew up Spanbroekmolen, which was the largest of them and which I’d helped to charge. Instead I was ordered to get up on Kemmel Hill that night and act as official observer for all the Tunnelling Companies. I had two subalterns with me; we put out sticks, lining sticks, on the correct bearings, and waited in pitch dark. When zero came, my anxiety of course was that some of the mines had been sitting in extremely wet ground and the explosive was ammonal which doesn’t go off when it’s wet. It was in soldered waterproof tins but we wondered how they’d fared…”
“The whole hill, the whole hillside, everything rocked like a ship at sea. The noise from the artillery was deafening, the thunder from our charges was enormous. The infantry dashed forward under a barrage and kept sending back thousands and thousands of prisoners. I couldn’t tell you how many. They came back through our dugouts and we were able to see them and they were absolutely demoralised. We were all so happy that we didn’t know what to do. Then when we got a look at the craters there were lumps of blue clay as big as a small building lying about there. Our Hill 60 crater was 100 yards across from lip to lip and still 45 feet deep. We thought the war was over…”
Ulrick Burke, British Officer, morning of the battle
“Immediately the daylight came, they had their rum ration. The Quartermaster was always good on these occasions, it was practically a double, because he’d filched or watered or done something to it to let us have some more. Anyhow, that was done. Then you gave the men your last orders. They had brief sort of ladders, two bits of wood nailed together with three or four cross pieces to form the ladder to help them get out. Five minutes before the actual time of going over, which was the worst time for the troops, that’s when their feelings might break. You’d say, ‘Five minutes to go!’ You’d shout it down the left and right of your sector. Then, ‘Four minutes… three minutes… two minutes’ and ‘half a minute!’ and then you’d say, ‘10 seconds… get ready! Over…!’”
Thomas Phillips, Machine Gun Corps, battlefield conditions
“So we were marched into Ypres with the baggage and machine guns in a lorry and up through Hellfire Corner going up the Menin Road where old Jerry used to shell all day and night. We passed that alright up Menin Road about half a mile… oh! What ruin… the horses, mules, men, everything dead across. I never saw such destruction in my life. And big shells coming over, bursting. We managed and we didn’t catch a shell at all. Then we had to advance up two small ridges from the main road and there we came across small tanks that had been knocked out or stuck in the mud; they were no damn good at all.”
Alfred Irwin, British Officer, failure of the offensive
“It was a dreadful experience. The weather was continuously bad for weeks before that action. I think I very nearly lost my job as a battalion commander because I sent in a written protest to the brigade that we couldn’t be successful. I was very severely told off for that. I don’t think our leading troops got more than 50 yards. We simply stuck in the mud. Anybody carrying a Lewis gun or any heavy weight like that simply couldn’t get on, it was beyond his strength. I spent that night in a horrible shell hole with my orderlies, one of whom was killed sitting on the top of the shell hole. But there was never any chance of success and this I had reported to the brigade as my considered opinion and endless lives were lost that night just for nothing at all. But we ought not to have been allowed to go at all.”
Jack Dillon, Lewis Gunner, the swampiness of the battlefield
“Now the mud at Passchendaele was very viscous indeed, very tenacious, it stuck to you. Your putties were solid mud anyway. But it stuck to you all over, it slowed you down. It got into the bottom of your trousers, you were covered with mud. The mud there wasn’t liquid, it wasn’t porridge; it was a curious kind of sucking kind of mud. When you got off this track with your load, it ‘drew’ at you, not like a quicksand, but a real monster that sucked at you.”
William Collins, Stretcher-bearer, on the mud
It was a nightmare, because all you had was a couple of duckboards side by side and either side of it was about ten feet of mud with the top of a tank sticking out of it here and there. If you fell off, it would take a traction engine to pull you out, almost. It was that deep – it was absolute sucking mud. There were cases when one or two men slipped off the duckboards and it took a couple of their comrades to pull them out gradually, inch by inch, when they managed to keep their arms out and they pulled them out, inch by inch, out of the mud and got them on again, on the boards again…
According to Jeremy Banning, a military historian and researcher specializing in the First World War, 1917 has a few historical oddities and inauthenticities that are worth pointing out (note: he still considers the movie great in terms of filmmaking and some historical authenticity like the trench scene near the beginning). Below is a list compiled from his points made:
-It is puzzling that there are battalions nine miles beyond where the German line once was and others being unaware that this lien was manned or not. If one were to be delivering a message, you would want to avoid all possible areas of conflict (such as the farmstead).
-The assault by the Devons would not have attacked without proper artillery support. If all of these personal and equipment have penetrated as far as beyond Ecoust, how do nearby sectors not have any idea if the line is manned or not by the Germans?
“1917.” Rotten Tomatoes. Accessed March 2, 2022. https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/1917_2019.
“1917: The Rage of Men.” The History Place - World War I Timeline - 1917 - the rage of men, 2009. https://www.historyplace.com/worldhistory/firstworldwar/index-1917.html.
Solly, Meilan. “The True History behind the '1917' Movie.” Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian Institution, December 20, 2019. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/true-history-behind-1917-movie-180973800/.
“Memorial Service to Be Held on 100th Anniversary of First UK Air Raid, That Left 60 Dead.” Express.co.uk. Express.co.uk, May 24, 2017. https://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/808718/wwi-first-air-raid-uk-100th-anniversary-memorial-service.
“Read: World War I - A Total War (Article).” Khan Academy. Khan Academy. Accessed March 2, 2022. https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/whp-origins/era-7-the-great-convergence-and-divergence-1880-ce-to-the-future/71-world-war-1-betaa/a/read-world-war-i-a-total-war-beta.
Created by World History project
Barros, Andrew. “Strategic Bombing and Restraint in ‘Total War’, 1915–1918.” The Historical Journal 52, no. 2 (2009): 413–31. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0018246x09007523.
Keller, Tait. “Destruction of the Ecosystem,” in: 1914-1918-online. International Encyclopedia of the First World War, ed. by Ute Daniel, Peter Gatrell, Oliver Janz, Heather Jones, Jennifer Keene, Alan Kramer, and Bill Nasson, issued by Freie Universität Berlin, Berlin 2018-08-28. DOI: 10.15463/ie1418.10371.
McNeill, J.R. and William H. The Human Web: A Bird’s Eye View of World History. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2003.
Operation Alberich & The Hindenburg line
Simkins, P.; Jukes, G.; Hickey, M. (2003). The First World War: The War to End All Wars. Oxford: Osprey. 119. ISBN 978-1-84176-738-3.
Banning, Jeremy. “‘A Staggering Tour De Force – but an Opportunity Missed’: A Historian's Review of the Film 1917.” HistoryExtra, January 14, 2020. https://www.historyextra.com/period/first-world-war/1917-film-historian-review-real-history-ww1-what-happened-how-plausible-accurate/.
The Battle of Passchendaele/Third Battle of Ypres
“Third Battle of Ypres Begins in Flanders.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, November 5, 2009. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/third-battle-of-ypres-begins-in-flanders.
By History.com editors
For the Danger Close Podcast
By Kyle Pocock
To be clear, this is mostly just the same research I turned in for They Shall Not Grow Old with some added clarification and a new section on Runners. I figured it would still be a useful reference to have no matter what.
Smokeless powder in its element. Smokeless powder was developed by the French scientist Paul Vielle in 1886, revolutionizing weapons technology. This may be the most significant development in modern military technology as it significantly reduced the amount of “fouling,” the greasy, goopy substance left behind after firing black powder. This allowed repeating weapons to be more reliable and to fire for longer periods of time without cleaning. Machine guns and repeating rifles could now properly be developed with reasonable reliability. The range of the cartridges developed was also greatly increased, owing to the increased velocity of the projectile. This led to a flatter shooting rifle that was easier to hit a moving target with. When applied to machine guns using the same smokeless cartridges, the results were gruesome and devastating, to the point that early use of machine guns in colonial conflicts weren’t commented on too heavily lest it come across as barbaric.
Artillery: By far the deadliest and most influential technology was the fast firing artillery developed before and during the war. Whereas earlier artillery pieces were slow, muzzle loaded, short range black powder cannons, the weapons of WWI were able to fire repeatedly without having to correct for aim between shots. This allowed for massive amounts of firepower to be put in a concentrated spot in a short amount of time, as fast as 15 rounds a minute. Again leading the arms race, the French M1897 75mm (namesake of the French 75 champagne cocktail) led the way for this new breed of artillery with a novel hydraulic shock absorbing recoil system allowing quick follow up shots. This basic design feature was copied in different configurations on all sides. Some heavy caliber siege guns and even gigantic rail guns were developed, one German rail gun serving as a terror weapon capable of hitting Paris 75 miles away. Aside from a massive bombardment before an attack, tactics continued to develop to include the creeping barrage, where the guns would fire ever further away from the front lines as the infantry advanced behind the “shield” of fire from the guns. Trenches were built in a sawtooth pattern so that shrapnel and blast waves from artillery would only be allowed to go a certain distance before it was stopped by the next section. No other weapon killed more soldiers in the war than artillery and its impact can’t be understated.
(After passing through the now collapsed barracks, our main characters pass some 15cm Kanone 16 field gun positions. The number of spent shells gives a sense of how much they had been used up until the retreat.)
Repeating Rifles: The French development of smokeless powder allowed them to develop the first repeating, magazine rifle using it, the Lebel 1886. Development was somewhat rushed as they wanted to be ahead of the game as quickly as possible compared to their black powder using European counterparts. Subsequent designs from other countries followed, including the German Mauser 98 (a basic bolt action system still in use today in hunting and sniper rifles), the American Springfield 1903 (a near copy of the Mauser system that resulted in legal fees after the war), and the British Lee Enfield (a robust rifle that remained in service in some configurations until 1990, a testament to both the reliability and performance of the rifle and the lag in the procurement processes). One significant advantage of these new rifles was using clips or chargers (a thin piece of sheet metal that held the cartridges together) to load the ammo 5 rounds all at a time instead of single shots at a time, increasing rate of fire to rates previously unseen on the battlefield. There are several accounts, particularly of early war professionally trained soldiers, having their withering fire mistaken for machine guns due to the sheer volume they were able to keep up with their clips and fast bolt actions.
The No 1 Mk 3 Short Magazine, Lee Enfield rifle (as seen carried by both men), served through all of the Great War for all the commonwealth countries. It was well liked by soldiers for being rugged, accurate, and fast to shoot. It was developed to be used both by infantry and cavalry instead of having a long and short rifle for each, leading to a short, handy rifle allowing quick shots on close-in targets. A replacement was being worked on before the war but it was supplanted by the existing design already in wide-scale production. It did, however, serve with the Americans in a caliber conversion called the M1917, seeing heavy use by the AEF.
(The SMLE British service rifle during WWI.
(Blake and Schofield keep their SMLEs at the ready as they approach the German trench. Their P07 Sword type bayonets are fitting should they run into any close fighting.
Machine Guns: Hiram Maxim, an American inventor, developed the Maxim machine gun just before the development of smokeless powder, taking advantage of the new ammunition type once it was available to him. Having been attempted for decades before, he successfully harnessed the recoil power of a bullet exiting a barrel to create a fully automatic, belt fed machine gun. His design was used by all major powers of the war in slightly different variations to devastating effect. Use of a tube of water around the barrel allowed the guns to be fired effectively indefinitely as long as there was water and ammo available. Offenses were incredibly costly and eliminating enemy machine guns was the highest priority on the attack. One solution was the light machine gun, being able to be carried into battle and operated by an individual; the infancy of the light machine gun led to clunky designs that though successful, were quickly improved or replaced by the end of the war. In British service as seen in the movie, the Vickers model of the Maxim machine gun and the Lewis light machine gun saw heavy use on the front lines throughout the war. German and Russian use of machine guns was far more advanced and ahead of their time compared to British forces, as evidenced by the significant disparity in machine guns at the beginning of the war (12,000 German vs several hundred British).
(We surprisingly don’t see many machine guns in the movie, only a few Lewis light machine guns are seen crossing passed the camera)
Aircraft: Balloons and airplanes were most effective at guiding artillery fire and coordinating movements through reconnaissance. Still in their infancy, aircraft progressed rapidly during the war, developing different type classifications as specializations emerged from recon to bombers. The first air-to-air dogfights started with handheld rifles and pistols progressing to machine guns mounted to the aircraft firing safely through the propellers by way of the interrupter gear. This amount of visibility on the ground was unprecedented and allowed for high levels of coordination between artillery and infantry. Combined arms warfare between aircraft, tanks, artillery, and infantry had finally been developed and used for the first time.
(The German pilot comes in for a crash landing as Black and Schofield scurry for cover)
Tanks: The search for a weapon or tactic to break the trench stalemate was a constant goal of researchers and developers on both sides of the war. One solution, started in England in 1915, was to armor a tractor, allowing men and weapons to cross No Man’s Land and launch an armored attack on the defenders. The prototype, lovingly named the “Little Willie” Landship, was exceptionally slow and carried a few machine guns. To disguise their secretive purpose, they were described as water carriers in reports, hence the name “Tank.” Eventually, the rhomboid Mk I tank went into production in 1916 and on September 15th, in the battle of the Somme, the first tanks attacked German lines. Mechanical issues knocked out most of them but the merits of such a design were clear and further development led to the first light tanks and other variations. These early tanks were noisy, hot, cramped, and generally terrible to be inside but the promise of a swift end to the war through technological development was a tempting possibility. This possibility was finally proven in November 1917 at the battle of Cambrai where 500 MK IV (an improvement of the MK I) tanks blew a 4 mile hole in the German lines, cementing their place on the battlefield for centuries to come.. France and Germany both followed suit with their own iterations with the French developing the first tank with a rotating 360 degree turret known as the FT-17 produced by Renault and the Germans creating a boxy, rectangular behemoth known as the A7V. The FT-17 was the first tank used by the US Army and would see significant interwar use by countries around the world. The effect of the tank on warfare is extremely clear to anyone who’s taken a look at modern military history and their battlefield presence continues to spread fear, despite the many dangers they face on the current digital battlefield.
(We see Blake and Schofield passing by a Mk II “male” tank in the movie. Male and female denoted the type of weapons carried by each vehicle in their side sponsons; heavy guns for males and machine guns for females)
Flamethrowers: Developed alongside tanks to act as a battering ram to knock through defenses or as a terrifying static defensive weapon, flamethrowers were used on all sides but were most effectively put to use by the Germans with their Sturmtruppen assault infantry in daring raids and frontal attacks with multiple specialist soldiers employing new technology.
Mills’s bomb: One of the first modern fragmentation grenades, the British Mill’s bomb was brutally effective at delivering deadly shrapnell as far as the user could throw it. All the other major powers developed their own hand grenades, some fragmentation based, others relying on concussive blast alone to kill like the German stick grenade.
Light mortars: Having access to man-portable artillery was a game changer for small unit tactics as less coordination was required to rain down explosive firepower on the enemy at close to medium range. The high angle of attack also made them deadly to soldiers caught in a trench next to a landing shell.
Chemical weapons: I considered making an entire section on this but didn’t have as much knowledge on the subject. The development of poison gas to be used in bombardments was not a new idea but new gas and shell types made them a frightening reality with grisly effects. Blindness, burns, and ultimately death at the hands of gas attacks were all too common among the soldiers on all fronts, with Germany leading the way in their use. The banning of any sort of chemical warfare is testament to just how terrible these weapons were and the extent of the permanent suffering they imparted on anyone in their path.
A Quick Delve Into Sniping as a Novel Tactic:
Sniping or sharpshooting has a long and murky history with the first rifles extending the range and accuracy of early black powder muskets. In a world of line battles and ranks of men firing at each other in lines to capitalize on the slow firepower of their muzzleloading weapons, killing from afar was seen as most unsporting and was severely frowned upon, especially the direct targeting of officers. As WWI devolved into trench warfare, it became clear that marksmanship would be at a premium when firing at each other’s parapets and hidden loopholes. Going into the war, the British army had some of the best trained professional soldiers in the world and their marksmanship and skill with the aforementioned Lee Enfield was legendary to the point of some German soldiers thinking they were being fired upon by machine guns as the British soldiers kept up a withering fire with their bolt action rifles. (One test of marksmanship skill, known as the Mad Minute, required getting as many shots on a 24 inch target at 300 yards as possible in one minute. The record was 38 hits by Sergt.-Instructor Snoxall in 1914!)
The Germans had a long-standing tradition of game hunting and marksmanship competitions, incorporating trained riflemen into units known as Jaegers. From these groups and others, the combination of civilian training and battlefield experience proved deadly for the Entente powers who had little to no such programs of their own. Another advantage the Germans capitalized on was their robust optical sight and telescope industry, far better than any in the world at the time (they are still known for their quality weapon scopes as companies like Zeiss, Schmidt and Bender, and Steiner continue to provide premium optics to military and civilian customers.) Culling any civilian rifle with a scope in a government-mandated round up and training as many men as they could, the Germans proved a formidable threat throughout the war, keeping the threat of death ever looming over anyone stationed on the front.
Ever lagging behind when it came to sniping, the British response was slow and clumsy at best, despite their excellent training at the beginning of the war in infantry shooting. This was partially as a result of the notion that sniping was not something to support and brass found it unconscionable but as the atrocities of total war made it clear that ethical boundaries were falling apart and the body count from enemy snipers grew, the decision was finally made to start training snipers and converting rifles to accept optical scopes. Drawing from their own sport shooting spheres and with the prodding of skilled officers like Vernon Hasketh-Prichard and Neville Armstrong, a training program was created. Despite the vastly superior Pattern 14 rifle then in development being perfectly suited for sniping, the military settled on what was actually available and in mass production, leaving the job to the SMLE yet again. A hodgepodge of small shop-manufactured cottage industry optical sights were affixed to them, often offset to the left side of the rifle to allow the use of the iron sights as well as the fast clip loading of the Lee Enfield. None of these were particularly well-liked and the offset to the left made using the rifle clumsy and awkward. Some of the stranger types included extremely simplified optics like the Galilean type scopes, with two exposed lenses on either end of the rifle acting like a caseless scope, usually with rather low magnification. Eventually, and with much in the way of bloody experience, the British sniping program gained ground and became a force to be reckoned with, employing novel techniques like constructing disruptive, three-dimensional sniping smocks and suits (known as ghillie suits after the anti poaching Scottish keeper’s suits of similar design) and papier-mache fake trees and dead animals with loopholes for shooting out of to deadly effect against their enemies on the Western front.
The Americans and French followed suit, affixing scopes to their Springfield and Lebel rifles, respectively. While the Americans were even later to the game, the French saw more success and even developed and rather widely issued a semi-automatic rifle, the RSC 1917, that they issued to the best shots in platoons to make the most out of its improved firepower. Their APX scopes were taken from artillery pieces and affixed to Lebel rifles, proving a robust, yet somewhat long and heavy system throughout the war.
With the “War to End All Wars” at a close in 1918, most militaries completely stopped development of sniping rifles, with many languishing in storage until WWII, when the lessons learned in the First World War would again be put to the test in a much more dynamic war.
We see Schofield trade shots with a sniper in a building while trying to cross a bridge. He ends up breaching the building and shooting the sniper while taking a hit at the same time, leading to the only significant time cut in the movie. Though the sniper doesn’t seem to be using an optical sight on his Mauser rifle, his methods no doubt earn him the label.
(Schofield cycles the bolt on his SMLE to take another shot at the sniper.)
Runners in WWI
Communications in WWI were becoming increasingly complex and modern as the war went on. Telephones and telegraphs were in constant use, though their dependence on wires left them open to damage from artillery strikes and they were constantly breaking and severing communications. Antiquated as it may be, carrier pigeons were still in use, as they were difficult to kill with a rifle and relatively reliable in delivering messages. They were, however, a one way only method of communication and required care and attention.
Instead, men were tasked as runners with delivering messages in person by moving from trench line to trench line. Risking enemy rifles, machine guns, and shells, Runners had an especially dangerous yet vital job as lines were rarely continuous and messages needed to be sent at all times about critical battlefield information. While often on foot, sometimes they would ride a horse for the added mobility and speed, or, later in the war, a motorcycle could be used for the same purpose.
Situations like that in the film weren’t far from reality, with runners risking their lives to deliver messages to those that needed them. One such runner was Private James Miller of the British Army who, in 1916 was tasked with delivering a message just after his unit had captured a German position and was enduring a counter-attack. From the London Gazette:
"Private Miller was ordered to take an important message under heavy shell and rifle fire, and to bring back a reply at all costs. He was compelled to cross the open, and on leaving the trench was shot almost immediately in the back...in spite of this, with heroic courage and self-sacrifice, he compressed the gaping wound, delivered his message, staggered back with his answer, and fell dead at the feet of the officer to whom he delivered it. He gave his life with a supreme devotion to duty."
Clearly, such bravery as we see from both men was never in short supply during the war. Runners knew that they were often the only hope of a message making it to the right person and though the consequences weren’t always the lives of 1,600 men, often they included enemy troop movements, orders that needed to be given immediately, or other costly information that needed to be given no matter the cost.