Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.

Long-exposure photograph of artillery shelling in WWI; ca.1917.

This would be beautiful if the context wasn't so horrible.

This is Trench Warfare.

There’s a lack of appreciation, I think, for why WWI was so traumatic for soldiers.

There’s an ebb and flow over military history between the offense and the defense having the upper hand. In the last major European war before WWI, the Franco-Prussian War, the offense had the edge; Germany won via its decisive and swift march onto Paris, disabling France before it could really even get in the fight. Decades later, however, by the time WWI began, technology had changed; advances in artillery, machine gun, railway systems, fortifications, etc., and even the adaptation of some low-tech stuff like barbed wire, made the defense much more powerful than the offensive technology that existed at the time.

But the mindset that everyone was operating under was still based on that last major war. This was the rationale behind Germany’s invasion of France through Belgium- it believed it had to move quickly to disable France, or it would lose a two-sided war against France and Russia. Likewise, the cult of the offensive dominated French thinking; there was a strikingly testosterone-driven belief that a fervent charge of bayonets was enough to overcome any machine gun fire. And let’s not even get started on cavalry. This was the first war in history where cavalry was finally and completely rendered obsolete, and the generals did not adapt well, they were still sending cavalry out to be massacred by machine gun fire even by the time the war ended.

The point is, you have this dynamic where the technology of the time says, “Sit and defend,” and the generals say, “Go out and charge!” And the shocking thing is how long it takes the military leadership, especially of the Entente, to adapt; and how frequently they relapse. Really why the war dragged as long as it did; the Germans were better, although by no means perfect, at learning not to bleed themselves dry (culminating ultimately in the intentionally flexible Hindenburg line, while the French were still ordering their men to never yield an inch of ground.) So there’s this cycle of long squalid tedium, guys sitting in mud holes getting eaten alive by bugs and fungi and their own bodies, eaten cold food out of tins, interrupted by the occasional pointless but massive bloodletting as whoever’s in charge this month initiates another stupid offensive that he sells back home as being decisive and sure to break the stalemate, but maybe, at best, gains a few square miles of territory- as often as not lost again six months later.

And meanwhile the artillery. WWI has lots of poison gas, although it’s not very effective in the final tally, and snipers and machine guns, and sappers that explode a line from underneath you; but all together none of them take near the toll that the artillery does. WWI was the war for artillery, dominated by the big guns, with tanks and functioning bombers still in the future. The industrial countries blow through millions of tons of artillery shells, cratering and re-cratering the landscape, first indiscriminately and then in creeping waves as they learn how to use them; the entire peace-time reservoirs of shells are expended in months at the start of the war, and they churn out more, the later battles often using in a matter of days as many shells as even existed in the world in 1912. Being on the frontlines usually meant being surrounded by the constant shock and roar of the big guns, always meant living in fear that you could be snuffed out in an instant by them; and besides the pure psychological terror, meant exposure to literal shockwaves that were constantly fucking with your brain in ways we’re just coming to grips with today as we deal with combat veterans who’ve been exposed to IEDs.

So to recap; if you’re a soldier in WWI, you’re spending your time in a squalid trench- German trenches were constructed better but made up for it with the severe shortages of pretty much everything caused by the British naval blockade, so that almost everything you ate or wore was a poor substitute made from something else; paper shoes and acorn coffee. Most of the time is a constant tedium undergirded by the fear that at any second a massive offensive could be launched, or even just a random burst of artillery fire, that reduces you to powder without your ever hearing or seeing a warning of it. This is the best case scenario. Worst case scenario you’re in an offensive and your general is sending you out to get ground up against the enemy’s defenses, with deserters getting shot or hung, trying to crawl through shell-blasted mud and barbed wire into a nest of machine gunners. Slightly luckier and you’re on the defense, which is great as long as you don’t get gassed or an artillery shell doesn’t land on you, or sappers don’t blow up the entire ridge you’re sitting on, or snipers don’t see your head sticking up, or just caught at the hammer point of an all-out offensive that might peter out a few miles forward but is going to sweep you aside through sheer mass of numbers.

And this just goes on. And on. That’s what drives people mad. All this thunder and blood and mud and nothing changes. Some of the battles themselves drag on for months of near-constant murder. Maybe if you have a good general you get rotated through so you’re not constantly living under the guillotine, but more likely your commander has you or a bunch of your buddies killed for a few worthless square miles you have to give up again when he realizes he can’t defend them effectively.

The “Stabbed in the Back” myth that Hitler would use later to help rise to power held that the German army was never defeated in the field, that it lost to politicians at home. The first part is actually kind of true though. Even on the run at the end, the Germans inflicted about as many casualties as they took. The thing is they were never really victorious in the field, because battles during WWI just weren’t winnable, really. To either side. The technology meant that both sides were just slowly, painfully bleeding each other until someone gave up. To the soldiers this meant there was no hope of victory- but also no hope even of defeat. Just sitting there, waiting to die.

And all war is barbaric, but it’s not hard to see why WWI was so unusually tormenting to the mental well-being of those who fought it.

(A French lieutenant at Verdun who was later killed by a shell, wrote in his diary on 23 May 1916:

“Humanity is mad. It must be mad to do what it is doing. What a massacre! What scenes of horror and carnage! I cannot find words to translate my impressions. Hell cannot be so terrible. Men are mad!”)

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