At the beginning of the First World War, lines of French infantry in blue coats and red trousers charged machine-guns and modern artillery. The French lost one man in four in a month.
Three years later, the face of war had changed forever. Battles lasted for months. They extended across dozens of square miles. The landscape became a brown wasteland of rubble, tree-stumps, shell-holes, barbed wire, and dead bodies.
Usually no-one could be seen. The soldiers lived in underground complexes of trenches and tunnels. When attacking, they crept forwards in small groups using all available cover.
Casualties were still horrendous. About a million men were killed or wounded in the Battle of Verdun (February-December 1916). Another million were killed or wounded in the Battle of the Somme (June-November 1916). In each case, only a few miles of ground were gained. Neither battle broke the impasse. The war continued as before.
Another million were killed or wounded in the Battle of Passchendaele (July-November 1917). It rained almost non-stop, turning the battlefield into liquid mud. Thousands of wounded men drowned in the morass. Again, the front shifted by a few miles, and the war went on.
Capitalism had plunged humanity into an abyss of carnage, destruction, and waste without precedent. Industrial society’s capacity to satisfy human need through mass production had been turned into its opposite: industrialised slaughter.
The war was an extreme expression of the competition between national-capitalist blocs. The whole industrial power of the rival blocs was harnessed to building, arming, and maintaining mass armies. The result was protracted stalemate.
Mass conscription had created armies of millions. The Prussian army at Waterloo in 1815 had numbered 60,000 men. The Prussian army at Sedan in 1870 had numbered 200,000. The German army on the Western Front in 1914 numbered 1.5 million.
Mass production provided the guns, munitions, and supplies to keep such huge masses fighting. The British had 156 guns at Waterloo in 1815. They fired a few thousand rounds in total. At the Somme in 1916 they had 1,400 guns. They fired nearly two million shells in a few days.
Modern firepower created an impenetrable ‘storm of steel’ and an ‘empty battlefield’. Men crept from shell-hole to shell-hole, hid themselves in the rubble of ruined buildings, or burrowed into the ground, creating an underground maze of trenches, dugouts, and tunnels.
The result was a war of stalemate and attrition. Industrial output was decisive: the demand was always for more guns, more shells, more explosive. Millions of workers were mobilised in war industries. The ‘home front’ became a target of bombing and blockade.
The trenches of the First World War have become symbolic of the slaughter. But they did not cause it: in fact, they provided protection from the storm of steel on battlefields dominated by firepower.
And stalemate is only half the story. The dynamic of industrialised militarism also produced ever more lethal means of destruction. A technological arms race took off as rival sets of scientists and engineers competed to increase their nations’ killing power.
In 1914, there were tens of thousands of cavalry. By 1918, there were thousands of tanks. In August 1914, the British had just 30 military aircraft on the entire Western Front. By August 1918, they were deploying 800 in a single battle.
Because of this, the character of the war changed. The war of movement in August and September 1914 had been transformed into a war of trench stalemate in October and November.
Attempts to break the deadlock by launching head-on attacks across no-man’s-land during 1915 were bloodily repulsed. Politicians and generals concluded they need more men, more guns, more shells.
It was in the third phase of the war, during 1916 and 1917, that the murderous months-long offensives at Verdun, the Somme, and Passchendaele were fought. They were the bitter fruit of wholesale conscription and mass production of matériel by fully mobilised ‘total war’ economies.
Trench warfare was the norm on all fronts. The experience of the Western Front was replicated on the Eastern Front, in the Balkans, and in the Middle East.
Lines were often weaker and more easily broken on the extended fronts of the East. But poor communications over vast distances slowed victorious armies down and allowed defeated ones to build a new trench lines further back.
The military impasse was eventually broken by a revolutionary combination of new infantry tactics based on ‘fire and movement’ and the support of massed tanks and airpower.
But this did not mean an end to slaughter. The new war of movement proved even more murderous than trench-war stalemate. The size of the butcher’s bill was not determined by the nature of the fighting. It was determined by its scale. It was a product of industrial capitalism.
Two factors were decisive. First, the great powers were divided by imperial rivalry as their industries grew and competed. Second, when the powers clashed, these same industries could mass produce the means of destruction.
That is one reason the Second World War was longer and bloodier than the First. It lasted six years and killed 60 million compared with four years and 10 million. Global industrial capacity was that much greater 20 years later. It is highly likely that a world war today would be the worst in history.
Societies were torn apart by the slaughter and privation inherent in modern industrialised war. To maintain support for war, the propaganda of the ruling class demonised ‘the enemy’ and vilified ‘traitors’ and ‘spies’. Sometimes this spilled over into genocidal racism.
The Ottoman Turks murdered 1.5 million Armenians in an internal ‘war on terror’ in 1915. (The killed with rifles, clubs, and neglect. A generation later, even genocide had been industrialised: the Nazis murdered 6 million Jews and 6 million others in purpose-built extermination factories.)
The danger for the ruling class was that soldiers and workers would revolt against a murderous war of attrition. Instead of continuing a bosses’ war for empire and profit, they might put class interests before national hatreds, and make common cause with soldiers and workers in ‘enemy’ states.
The First World War was ended by just such a revolt from below. A wave of protest and revolution swept across Europe from 1917 onwards. First Russia withdrew from the war, shutting down the Eastern Front. Then Germany, ending the war on the Western Front.
Thereafter, for several years, the revolution threatened to go global. Popular revulsion against war almost brought down the ruling classes everywhere. Capitalism survived by a whisker. To this mighty wave of world revolution we must now turn.
In the parks, halls and public spaces around Kings Cross
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