TV producer and writer Downing (Night Raid: The True Story of the First Victorious British Para Raid of WWII, 2013, etc.) recounts the complete transformation of warfare during World War I, the first industrialized war.
The author tracks innovations in aviation, code-breaking, the chemistry and engineering of weapons, medical breakthroughs and the birth of the art of propaganda. Gone was the idea of a gentleman’s war; spying and even chemical warfare were fair game. Those who felt things were “just not done” were overruled by the endless stalemate of trench warfare and brutality of chemical attacks. England’s scientific community successfully overcame pure science’s prejudice against applied science. With help from civilian inventors, they created airplanes that were capable of reconnaissance over the trenches. Within six hours of the declaration of war, the British cut five German cables in the North Sea and English Channel, forcing Germany to rely on wireless communication. Pure luck had handed British codebreakers three code books—one found by the Russians, one by an Australian and a third picked up by a fishing trawler. Each new invention led to another: Grenades demonstrated the need for steel helmets; chemical warfare required gas masks; planes flying recon needed aerial photography. With so many casualties, doctors needed to perfect quick fixes to return soldiers to the front, and there were vast improvements in blood transfusions, plastic surgery for horrific facial wounds, and psychology for shell shock. The greatest difficulty was convincing the Army officials; they obstructed, rejected and denied innovations that could have shortened the war. Tanks, the single most important tool in breaking the stalemate, weren’t used successfully until November 1917.
A meticulously detailed, welcome addition to the literature of World War I, the “first ‘total’ war in which all the resources of the state were involved.”