Echoes of the guns of August – why we remember the First World War so poignantly

It is 104 years since the First War began, this month – and a century, this year, since it ended. The nations involved in it had all variously been involved in longer wars before. And the main combatants fought a longer war later: the Second World War, which pitted the same major nations against each other, lasted nearly six years.

A New Zealand 18 pound gun in action at Beaussart, France, during World War I. Royal New Zealand Returned and Services’ Association :New Zealand official negatives, World War 1914-1918. Ref: 1/2-013221-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

But it was the First World War that, arguably, left a deeper cultural mark on western society. This came, I think, for several inter-related reasons. The obvious point, highlighted in the ‘war poet’/’Blackadder’ interpretation of that struggle – was the immense casualty rate, which typically ran to about sixty percent wounded or killed among all those who served. This was higher than in most previous wars, largely because of the advent of new industrial-age technologies. These had been brewing a while – were deployed, in essence, as early as the US Civil War of the early 1860s, where Gatling guns first made an appearance, and where transport revolved as much around rail as anything else.

All of these technologies were further refined as the nineteenth century went on. The result by the turn of the twentieth century was that the land battlefield had been considerably expanded on the back of rifles and machine guns. Positions could also be protected by barbed wire and mines. But the technologies to cross that field had not advanced since the days of Napoleon; they still involved the foot-soldier and horse. The British realised this early on, incorporating new techniques for dealing with the expanded battlefield – including introducing a khaki uniform in 1902 to replace the bright colours of earlier centuries – along with a wide range of field tactics designed to help the men reach their objectives across maybe 500 yards of battlefield, as opposed to the 150-odd yards of the Napoleonic era. These were built into the British Army’s 1909 field instructions. However, they had not been tested, and few other nations went so far. Nor was the British army – a tiny professional force of perhaps a quarter-million – able to match the raw numbers deployed by Continental conscript forces.

The net outcome, when war came, was that trench systems protected by barbed wire, mines and machine guns could stop an infantry advance under all but exceptional conditions. And the cost even of success, inevitably, was very high casualties. This was understood at the time, but there was no immediate way around it; and the problem on the Western Front, in particular, was that the Allies were under political pressure to achieve results. It was not until 1918 when the technology was available to conduct combined warfare – artillery, tank, infantry and close air support – that the trench systems could be broken.

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The time taken to achieve this result – trench warfare that lasted from about December 1914 until around July 1918 – was the second main factor in the social impact. It worked on two levels. First, the length of time the fighting continued required a constant stream of fresh men, meaning that participation rates went up. The second was that those who did serve often had to do so for years, and the sheer length of time involved was searing. The war used people up; even those who survived it were psychologically scarred, often emerging with long-term problems from gas and other issues involved with merely being in a trench at the front. Many died, often unrecorded by military officials afterwards because they did not succumb for some years and were lost to the bureaucracy.

The third and last major factor behind the weight the First World War has on western society, it seems to me, was the participation rate overall. Industrial technology made it possible to fight to a scale and endurance never before seen. Ships and railways could bring men to the front in unprecedented numbers. The rising bureaucracies of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, coupled with the industrialisation of production, made it possible to harness whole populations. A huge proportion of young men of the 1914-18 cohort fought in the First World War. But all the people of the combatant nations were drawn in – also, often, directly; women stepped into the places left by men in civilian life, or became munitions workers, or volunteered for war work as nurses and others. Children were affected, not just by the family disruptions but also by the shortages and the sense of emergency.

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This ‘total war’ became normalised during the twentieth century, but 1914-18 was the first time such an intense involvement had been experienced in recent western history. And it defined a century: the immediate vectors and trends that shaped the twentieth century – and hence, ultimately, the world of today – can be largely traced back to the First World War. They range from the collapse of the old order with that war, defining the political shape of the twentieth century that followed, through to social trends and thinking – even the impact of the Second Industrial Revolution, which gave the western world motor vehicles in socially significant numbers. This, too, was given impetus by the First World War.

For all these reasons, that war shaped our present in many ways, often subtle at this remove – but it shaped it nonetheless. And we remember it, as we should.

Don’t forget to check out my books on the First World War. Click to buy.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2018


7 thoughts on “Echoes of the guns of August – why we remember the First World War so poignantly

  1. Excellent article. One minor point – khaki as a uniform colour for the British army had already been well in use prior to the service dress of 1902. Khaki uniforms were regularly worn on campaign from the 1860s. The Sudan campaigns of 1884-85 were the first campaigns outside India where entire forces were outfitted in khaki. The Sudan was also the last place where the red coat was worn in battle. Interestingly, in the 1860s New Zealand Wars campaigns, British troops wore neither red nor khaki, but rather dark blue.

    1. I am well aware of this, notably the colours of the NZ Wars uniforms. According to my sources a form of Khaki uniform was first introduced in 1848, however I stand by what I said because the fact that the British had various shades of khaki in hand prior to 1902-03 is irrelevant to the thematic point I was making which was to underscore the fact that the British army was directly addressing the issues of the new battlefield in the early twentieth century. A lot of the early thinking came out in the field instructions of 1909, although of course many did not survive the first encounter with the enemy. The particular service dress introduced in 1902 was the first one that was universal to the whole service, replacing a range of other colours; and was also a particular shade of green-grey (‘khaki’) that was darker than had previously been used; so I consider it correct to state it was first introduced then.

      1. Good point. I just thought I’d clarify it in case some readers might’ve thought that no khaki at all had been worn prior to 1902. But I totally agree with your argument as a whole. Cheers, Roly.

  2. Interesting. I hadn’t thought of the cultural effect of WW1 from this perspective. But it should be obvious, since the generation that fought in WW2 was largely (perhaps I’m making a leap, but so it seems) was borne to the generation (or, at least, the survivors) that fought WW1. Look at the slang that survived from WW1 in WW2, like the use of the word “doughboys” here in the States. And one could argue that the Treaty of Versailles set the stage not only for WW2 but at least in part for the present day, due to the boundaries that were redrawn and the countries, like Poland, that came back into existence. So, yeah, this makes sense, and it’s thought-provoking indeed.

    1. I think you’re quite right – the Versailles re-draw of Europe has had vast effect on today. Eric Hobsbawm argued, in ‘Age of Extremes’ (1994) that WW1 set the stage for new world oppositions that dominated the twentieth century; it destroyed the ‘old order’ (including its European empires and boundaries) and opened the way not just for Bolshevism/Communism but also the totalitarian fascist states of the 1930s. For a time, Hobsbawm points out, democracy was but one of three systems – and it wasn’t the most successful one, either, thanks to the Depression. Churchill seems to have understood this (inevitably) which is why he refused to allow Britain to back down in 1940.

      By Hobsbawm’s argument, this broad trend begun in 1914-18 led first to the Second World War (when the totalitarian powers were defeated by democracy) and then to the Cold War which – eventually – allowed democracy to also defeat the Communist powers. The broad cycle did not finish, by this argument, until the early 1990s when the Soviet Union fell over. For this reason he called the twentieth century a ‘short’ one (1914-1992) just as he’d called the nineteenth a ‘long’ one in his earlier book ‘Age of Revolution’ – he felt the defining socio-political cycle began in 1789 and ended in 1914.

      I find his arguments compelling, although they are but one way of looking at history – an overtly Eurocentric and Western one – and there are other valid ways which provide different ways of framing events. Even in the Western context we might also argue, for instance, that even now we are in a broad cycle that defies dates, which began in the 1750s with the onset of big-scale industrialisation. But from (say) China’s perspective, very different patterns emerge. It’s all valid.

      But back to the Versailles re-draw – absolutely this re-framed the world; from the Hobsbawm perspective, it provided the specific geography around which those oppositions were then framed. Arguably even the issues in Serbia during the 1990s flowed from it, because of the way those 1919 boundaries often slashed through socio-cultural/ethinic communities, in favour of political ones.

      I find all this fascinating, as you’ll probably guess from the length of the reply!

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