The first industrial “total war”

The number of Second World War veterans has dwindled significantly and those surviving are now mostly in their 90s with a smattering over 100 years of age. The estimate is that the number of survivors are now under 80,000 out of the 1.1 million who served. With just 26,000 Canadians participating in the Korean War from 1950 to 1953, the number of survivors is even smaller and they are also an aging population.

The remaining veterans only grudgingly relate their stories of the Second World War and Korea. What they really want to focus on are the good times they experienced while on leave or during training, or how they developed strong bonds of fellowship or played practical jokes on one another. The actual fighting on the battlefield, on the high seas or in the air often brings back only painful memories.

It’s only in recent years that they have become more willing to tell the real stories of what it is like to be in a war. They recognize that as the years pass, their sacrifice in the name of freedom has fewer voices to tell what happened.

Invariably, veterans downplay their contribution to the war effort, merely  saying they had a job to do. The job, of course, defies being downplayed — to rid the world of tyranny and preserve the rights and freedoms we now cherish.

If anyone knew the face of tyranny in its ugliest form, it was the men and women who confronted death on a daily basis during the Second World War. They knew that the rise of Hitler, Tojo and Mussolini had placed the world in peril of becoming awash in a sea of blood. It was their job to put a stop to the fascists who had no qualms about enslaving and murdering whole races of people. The proof of the bestial intent of the fanatics was witnessed first-hand by the Allied fighting men and women: civilians made to labour as slaves in the Nazi war factories; the surviving Jews, Gypsies and citizens of numerous European nations starved and murdered behind the barbed wire of concentration camps; whole countries laid waste and pillaged by German, Italian and Japanese invaders. What they saw was evil in human form unleashed upon the world.

While there remain veterans who were first-hand witnesses to the brutality of the Second World War, no one survives who experienced the horrific conditions of the First World War trenches. The“war to end all wars” did end nearly 100 years ago on November 11 with the signing of an armistice, but war itself did not end.

It was the technological advancements made immediately before and during the Great War that make it possible to kill people on a grand scale. It was the world’s first truly “total war,” with the mobilization of nations and all their resources — military, civilian and industrial — into the proverbial “war machine,” which also meant that all were regarded as legitimate targets for destruction.

When machine guns swept the battlefield, scores were mowed down by bullets manufactured in the millions. Trains  made it possible to transport millions of soldiers directly to the front, where the vast resources and political and military organization of industrialized nations allowed tens of thousands to be slaughtered in the course of just one day of battle. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme on July 1, 1916, 21,000 British troops were killed, primarily by machine gun fire. On the same day, the Newfoundland Regiment of 801 men suffered 310 killed in a matter of minutes while attacking German trenches near Beaumont Hamel. Throughout the course of the 10-month-long battle, over 1.2-million men on both sides were killed — a testimony to  the ability of nations to organize themselves into efficient killing machines.

What the military commanders failed to, or refused to, recognize was that flanking manoeuvres were impossible as the trenches, manned by millions of troops, extended from the Swiss border to the North Sea in an unbroken chain. As a result, any attacking force sent over the top directly faced masses of machine guns, automatic rifles and artillery.  

Without the advances in the chemical industry, it would not have been possible to produce mustard gas to blind and disable men and chlorine gas to choke them to death. At Ypres in May 1915, Canadian and French Algerian troops were the first to encounter chlorine gas. The Algerians, who bore the brunt of the war’s first gas attack, fled in panic. But using advice from their companions, the Canadians soaked handkerchiefs in urine and held them over their mouths and noses while successfully repelling a German attack. The use of gas gave new meaning to the term, the “fog of war.”

The industrial output of nations was tapped to build massive battleships able to lob huge shells from mass-produced naval guns. The industrial capacity of Germany was used to produce the U-boats that hunted and then sank civilian and military ships alike.

Without the advancements in manufacturing steel and engines, it would not have been possible to build the tanks first used in the Great War, although limited in effectiveness until used in the Second World War. The same manufacturing skills were used to produce the aircraft that patrolled the skies above Flanders or dropped bombs on troops and civilians.

All the major weapons systems now used in 21st-century battlefields represent the evolution of the technologies first used in 1914-18. The killing power of the “great military-industrial complex” was first tried and tested with menacing effectiveness at the Somme, Ypres, Passchendaele and Vimy Ridge.

During the Great War, the youth whom politicians sent to the battlefield were at first ignorant of industrialized warfare’s potential to inflict mass destruction. Canadians came to the trenches of Europe in 1915 as innocent lads and left as battle-hardened men who had no doubt that the steel helmets produced in a factory provided little protection from the shrapnel raining down upon them from an exploding shell. The reality was that new artillery innovations accounted for more than half the casualties on the Western Front.

“Day after day they fight and trudge on through fields of fire and whether death may or may not come,” wrote war correspondent Philip Gibbs of British, Australian and Canadian soldiers in October 1918, “... whether their bones ache with fatigue or their bodies are weak with their burden of toil they keep on going ... Knowing the frightful hours ahead of them, they go to the enemy’s guns ... There is nothing funny in shell fire, but they kill their fear by some magic they have, and many who are the most afraid do the most heroic things.”

If anyone should be remembered on November 11, it is the men and women who endured industrialized destruction in the hope that they were helping to bring about a better world. What they hoped for may not have yet become a reality, but it is something that future generations should remember as the ultimate reason for their unselfish sacrifice. As First World War Canadian poet John McCrae wrote, “To you with falling hands we throw/ The torch — be yours to hold it high.”