Technological Revolution and Catastrophe Part I: How did a mismanaged technological revolution contribute to the calamity of World War One?

June 7, 2021

“The soldier’s terrible strength is due to the fact that behind him are coalfields, iron mines, steam engines, factories, chemical works, electrical shops and a vast host of highly trained workers”. 
HW Wilson, 1916 The Great War


For those of us who work in the field of law and technology it is sobering to recognise the pivotal impact that our discipline played (or failed to play) in the tragic events of the last century. It is not an unreasonable claim to state that there is a clear chain of causation from the mismanagement of the technological revolution of the Edwardian era by the legal and political communities of Europe and the deaths of 20 million people in World War One. It is also not hard to argue that the chain of causation extends 1918, this being “the first calamity of the 20th Century, the calamity from which all other calamities sprang”. The mass tragedy of the First World War was followed by the punitive treaty of Versailles which in turn lead to the rise of Nazism, World War Two and the Holocaust. In total it is reasonable to argue that this mismanaged technological revolution in the Edwardian Era in Europe was a significant contributing factor to the deaths of 70 – 80 million people. So, the regulation of technology we may reasonably conclude is at the very heart of secure civilisation.

The causes of World War One have been hotly debated over the last century. Historians agree that along with imperialism, nationalistic pride and the system of alliances, the mismanagement of new technology was a principal cause introducing the world to the reality of “total war”. The industrialisation of Europe in the 18th and 19th Centuries unleashed a plethora of military technologies in the Edwardian Era the likes of which had never been seen before: machine guns such as the British Maxim that fired 666 rounds per minute, rifles, cluster grenades, shells at up to a tonne in weight that could be propelled 30kms, poisonous gases such as chlorine and mustard gas, railways and ships providing supplies to huge numbers of men, U-Boat submarines capable of firing explosive torpedoes, steam-driven battle ships such as the dreadnought, mines set to explode floating just below sea level, military aircraft, radios and armoured cars, barbed wire laid in blankets 45 metres wide across no man’s land and of course the iconic World War One tanks. 

picture of munitions factory picture of german troops and donkey
Munitions workers painting shells at Chilwell,
Northamptonshire, 1914
German soldiers and their donkey with gas masks, 1916

In responding to these new technologies two calamitous sets of errors were made by the European leaders.

Firstly, there was an abject failure to regulate and control the arms race that developed prior to the war during which large corporations amassed very significant profits by manufacturing and selling to European powers ever increasing numbers of lethal weapons untested in battle. As murderous technologies mushroomed at an ever-increasing rate the European powers made only the feeblest efforts to implement new laws to mitigate their dangers. Two flag ship international peace conferences took place prior to the war – the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 – and one of the purposes of these conferences was to make legally binding declarations relating to dangerous new technologies.  

At the 1899 conference there were some declarations that touched on the technologies of the Great War (although they were subsequently contravened by both sides) such as a “prohibition of projectiles with the sole object of spreading poisonous gases” and another was made prohibiting the manufacture of bullets that changed form or expanded in the human body. Interestingly, at both the 1899 conference and the conference of 1907 declarations were made prohibiting the discharge of projectiles of explosives from balloons. In the war that started seven years after the last peace conference concluded there was some use of balloons in the form of German Zeppelins, but they proved largely unimportant in the unfolding conflict as were found to be slow, hard to manoeuvre, easy to shoot down and vulnerable to fire, soon viewed as military “sitting ducks”.

The combined efforts of the European politicians, generals and law makers to anticipate and regulate dangerous new technologies were dismal and the carnage that ensued stands testament to this colossal failure. The delegates recognised that dangerous new technologies were being manufactured but the treaties were meagre in scope and lacking in any meaningful foresight. While law makers were, it seems, alert to the dangers of balloons, they had no ability to anticipate and made almost no effort to regulate the manufacture of the technologies that subsequently caused so much unprecedented death and destruction.

While European law makers were failing to regulate these dangerous new technologies, the accelerating arms race was succeeding in lining the pockets of arms companies and their shareholders. Arms companies went as far as exaggerating international tensions to boost sales. In 1909 the Director of the Coventry Ordnance Works with the support of the Daily Mail falsely persuaded the British government that Germany was accelerating its naval programme with the intention of stimulating British naval expenditure. Armstrong & Vickers (the company that later became BAE) sold huge volumes of weapons to the Ottoman Empire prior to the war which were later turned disastrously on British troops at the Gallipoli Campaign. There were no meaningful efforts to regulate these fast-growing companies and perhaps unsurprisingly many of the British members of parliament were shareholders of the very companies that were profiting by mass producing the tools of European destruction.

The second set of errors related to the lack of foresight of Generals on both sides who stubbornly insisted on deploying old war tactics that were developed and polished in the era of cavalry warfare. This clash between 19th century military tactics and 20th century technology lead to repetitive ineffective battles that broke new ground in human carnage. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme alone 57,000 casualties were sustained. Most World War One commanders were slow to grasp the significance of the transformation of technology and the dangerously old-fashioned attitude of the cavalry commander is exemplified by Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig – famously the commander of the British troops at the Battle of the Somme – who wrote as late as 1926, “I believe in the value of the horse and the opportunity for the horse in the future. Aeroplanes and tanks are only accessories to men and as time goes by you will find just as much use for the horse – the well-bred horse – as you have ever done in the past”.

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