The Revolution in Violence in World War I

Historian Jay Winter on the global character of wars in the 20th century, the influence of technical progress on the number of casualties, and the first genocide

videos | July 16, 2015

What changed in the attitude to wars in the 20th century? How did the progress influence combat strategies? What were the roots of the first genocide? These and other questions are answered by Charles J. Stille Professor of History at Yale University, Jay Winter.

When war broke out in 1914 it opened a revolutionary moment in world history. And to a degree we are still living in that moment. The violence that was unleashed when war was declared in August 1914 was worldwide and it was industrialized. Never before had there been a world conflict among all the industrialized nations of the world, most of which had imperial assets, either nearby or in Africa, in Asia, in formal empires, in South America and so on.

So what happened in 1914 was much more powerful a shift in the nature of warfare and the violence that it entails than people new at that time. The reason was they thought it would be over quickly. But the very global character of the war and the fact that the states could call upon millions of men (70 million men put on uniforms in the WWI) and could mobilize the arms and resources needed to put them in the field and to conduct military campaigns made that an illusion.

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Once war was started, it could not be stopped for over 4 and a half years. And to a degree it didn’t even stop when an armistice was signed. In November 1918 in the West of Europe the killing stopped, but in the East of Europe the killing went on – in the Russian Civil War, in what they call the Polish War on Independence, in many colonial parts of the world killing continued.

And what we can say therefore is that a revolution in violence took place in 1914, which was much bigger than those who declared war understood. They were limited men with limited imaginations, who could have known something about the terrible price that soldiers would pay for artillery fire that could destroy a man in a split second. They could have known it, but they didn’t. They were sleepwalkers. They didn’t pay attention to the signs that war would be a catastrophe that they could see, if they had bared a few moments to look at it.

In the Balkan wars of 1912-13, where the terrible effects of artillery on the human body were explored by doctors, by military men, by all kinds of journalists, information was there. They could have looked at the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, to see what artillery and trench warfare might look like, what fire power does to a human being. They could have, although no one did, go back to the middle of the 19th century and look at the American Civil War, in which roughly 800 000 men were killed. They could have found out what mass death looks like, but they didn’t.

1914 was a revolution in violence launched by people who were too blind to understand what they were doing.

And this gives the WWI its tragic character. It was a war declared by those to preserve their way of life, perhaps to improve their situation on the world stage, but which destroyed both victors and vanquished. The only category that mattered after the end of the war in 1918 was that you survived.

Now, what was revolutionary about this, this war? I want to talk about 2 different kinds of revolutionary events, but they overlap, of course. The first is that the Second Industrial Revolution of 1880’s or 1890’s introduced us to chemical industries, engineering industries, light engineering and, in particular, conveyor belt production, mass production for a consumer market. And these industries provided the basis for the construction of enormous batteries of artillery. The great killer in the WWI was the gun, the canon – not the machine gun or a rifle, but a big gun, which was capable of firing on troops 30 to 40 km away.

And this is revolutionary for a number of reasons. First of all, it exponentially increased the killing power of armies. It made artillery the great killing weapon. The second thing it did, given the fact that these enormous armies were able to put reserves in place even when they were suffering defeats, is that they produced stalemate, they produced wars of position rather than wars of movement. And in the 19th century warfare had been a clash of arms, punching a hole in one army, seizing the initiative by sending the cavalry, surrounding or destroying the enemy. This happened rarely in 1914 – one example is in Tannenberg, the great German victory on the eastern front in late August 1914, but after that no such – percée in French – breakthrough happened. And instead, battles were fought in which enormous casualties were registered, and nobody moved.

Now, that meant that the killing power of artillery created a new situation, and the new situation was that these mass armies suffered casualties in the millions, half of which vanished without a trace. To put it in another way – the war was always a killing machine, but given its industrialization, it became a vanishing act, where soldiers simply vanished, their bodies were blown into powder, into dust in the biblical sense of the term. Where they succeeded, hundreds of thousands of other soldiers were killed before them into nothingness.

That was the fundamental change in the nature of war. Killing is a part of war, but making the dead disappear – this was revolutionary.

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The second part of the revolution in violence was that the use of chemical weapons – produced weapons of mass destruction. The first use of poison gas was on the 21 April 1915, when German soldiers opened 8000 canisters of chlorine gas, yellow gas. Now, this form of warfare, which had been outlawed under the international law, was used by all combatant powers. It was used against Russian troops, against German troops, against French troops. And it produced another form of torture. Since gas warfare didn’t produce the breakthrough, it just attacked the respiratory system of men and animals and made them suffocate to death on the field of battle or to retain wounds that they kept all of their lives.

And this use of science to penetrate the defensive positions of the other side is revolutionary, and it ultimately led to the scientific breakthroughs of the WWII, leading to the atomic bomb. So science was mobilized in the interests of killing.

And the other revolutionary part of this war, which is, I think, extraordinary, is not related to the artillery evolution or to the use of poison gas or other weapons – flamethrowers, for instance. The other side of the revolution of war is that civilians were targeted. Deliberately. Not by accident or in the fog of war. What happened in 1914-18 is that the distinction between civilian and military targets in warfare was first blurred and then erased. So that in 1914, when the German army invaded France, the use of human shields, civilians, the execution, summary execution of civilians, rape – they were all crimes known to the German high command. And they didn’t for a moment think to stop such crimes. They were part of war, not exceptions to war.

And we know this in the second year of the war – 1915 = in two instances. One is after the bloody nose that the Russian army suffered fighting in the eastern part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The retreat of the Russian army in 1915 produces mass violence against Russian citizens who were Jewish. Between 350 000 and 500 000 of Jewish people who lived in the pale of settlement, as Russian law had it, that was where the Jewish settlement would be, were uprooted, were expelled from their homes and sent on the roads behind the Russian army, so that, according to the commander of the time, they couldn’t act as either spies or accessories to the German or Austro-Hungarian soldiers who were facing the Russian army.

The revolutionary character of war is this: that it became a war against your own civilians.

 Not by accident, but because of the ethnic mix of these different empires – the Russian empire, the Austro-Hungarian empire. Civilians of one ethnicity became dangerous, and they had to be removed. Now, it happens that the commander of Russian forces who carried this expulsion act was fired, that the Tzar ultimately refused to count on such behavior.

But it was too late. What followed it was worse. What was worse happened in Turkey, almost exactly 100 years ago. In Ottoman Turkey, which was an ally of Germany and Austro-Hungary, the east of the country had been inhabited by Armenians for a thousand years. Some Armenians fought with the Russian army, some Armenians wished that the Russian army would win. But the triumvirate – the three people who ran the war effort of the Ottoman Empire, determined that the entire population of eastern Anatolia, the Armenian population had to be expelled. And on the 24th of April 1915, exactly 100 years ago, war against civilians started and produced the first genocide of the 20th century, in which over 1 million Armenians were murdered not for what they did, but for who they were. And this was a revolution in violence that left a terrible legacy for the second World War to come.

Charles J. Stille Professor of History at Yale University
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