A Higher Form of Killing: Six Weeks in World War I That Forever Changed the Nature of Warfare, by Diana Preston ISBN 9781620402122
Five out of five stars
The emphasis in this book is on three major ways in which warfare changed in the year 1915. While these three new methods of fighting a war had already been examined in science fiction and other literature and some had already been used to a small extent, the world was still stunned by the extent of the death and destruction. All of this was due to the fact that the war was being fought by modern, efficient industrial states and they brought those resources into play in order to weaken their opponents and kill their citizens. Soldiers first, but non-combatants as well.
The first of the three major changes in warfare was the use of the submarine. While a submarine was first used in warfare in 1776, what was different about World War I was that now passenger liners were considered fair prey. The Germans adopted a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare, so any ship entering the waters around England were fair game. The most famous case was that of the sinking of the “Lusitania,” a passenger liner with an easily recognized profile. The laws of war allowed for ships containing war material to be sunk after being given a suitable warning and time for the passengers to take to the lifeboats, but the Germans generally adhered to a policy of attacking without warning.
As always seems to be the case in warfare, the other side is in no way blameless. As is mentioned, the British showed little hesitation in “bending” the rules in order to suit themselves. They played the propaganda game well and even used honeypot ships that gave the appearance of unarmed freighters but were in fact designed as decoys to lure submarines to the surface. The idea was that if the German sub followed the rules of war and surfaced to give warning, the British ship could then destroy it.
The second of the major changes was in the aerial bombardment of cities with no real regard for the striking of military targets. In fact, it was the stated goal of the Germans in their Zeppelin raids on British cities to terrorize the citizenry and cause massive fires. There was not even the pretense of searching out military targets. As usual, each side blamed the other for doing it first.
The third and final major change was the widespread use of poison gas. The Germans clearly started this one, Nobel Prize winning chemist Fritz Haber was the leader of the team that introduced the world to the weapon of chlorine gas along with even more deadlier agents. It is ironic that with only a few small exceptions, most against more “primitive” cultures, the principle of deterrence kept gas from being used in the major wars that have taken place since the Great War.
In many ways, the lesson from this book is that no lessons are really learned. As a few of the leaders in the Great War were honest enough to point out, in such a war, the goal is to win and you do that by killing the people on the other side and destroying their infrastructure. Therefore, all people and buildings are considered legitimate targets. When the guns of August starting popping, most thought that the war would be over in a few months with their side achieving a great victory. That naive approach was heard once again when American forces invaded Iraq.
Science and engineering was applied to war on an industrial scale in the years 1914-1918. Many understood that that was what would happen, yet few really understood that millions of men would die and that all citizens would be considered targets of the new and more powerful weapons. This is a very good book, as it demonstrates how societies had “evolved” to the point where war was now total and it was now acceptable to kill children that were not even able to walk and talk. As long as they were on the other side of course.