A British historian of considerable breadth and accomplishment, Preston (The Dark Defile: Britain's Catastrophic Invasion of Afghanistan, 1838-1842, 2012, etc.) focuses on three wartime innovations that elevated to new heights mankind’s ability to slaughter itself: submarines, zeppelins and poison gas.
All were advanced to marvelous efficacy during the first weeks of World War I, thanks largely to the technologically savvy Germans, who shook off the world’s condemnation of their first use of asphyxiating gas to spur the trench stalemate in Belgium, with the justification that the other side would promptly use it, too—and they were right. The first Geneva Convention in 1864 drew up agreed-upon protocols for treating the sick and wounded in war and created the Red Cross. The Hague Peace Conference of 1899, in the cause of “humanizing war,” considered banning certain weapons, such as asphyxiating gases and projectiles and explosives launched from the air. To little avail: Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin had secured German financing for his dirigible prototype by 1900; the first U-boat had arrived at the Krupp’s plant in 1906 and was pushed into production because of British advances in submarines; and chemist Fritz Haber, director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin, arrived at the solution to blow chlorine gas over enemy trenches. (Not to be forgotten is Alfred Nobel’s development of dynamite and smokeless powder.) All available methods would be enlisted to help Germany embark on a swift and lethal thrust in the spring of 1915, dropping bombs by zeppelin over London, torpedoing the Lusitania and killing 1,198 people, and gassing troops of young men who had no idea how to manage a chemical attack. In what is often difficult but necessary reading, Preston provides haunting descriptions of the effects of poison gas.
A harrowing—and, in this era of drones, absolutely pertinent—look at the rapacious reaches of man’s murderous imagination.