Book Review – A Higher Form of Killing: Six Weeks in World War I that Forever Changed the Nature of Warfare

A Higher Form of Killing by Diana Preston

A Higher Form of Killing: Six Weeks in World War I that Forever Changed the Nature of Warfare by Diane Preston is an account of the changes in traditions of warfare that took place between April and May 1915. Preston is an Oxford educated historian whose career was in print journalism in the UK and the US. She also was a broadcaster for the BBC and CBC. Nearly a decade ago Preston began writing popular history, covering subjects that are compelling, but also relate to the human experience. Her topics include The Lusitania, the Taj Mahal, Britain in Afghanistan, and pirates.

If I were asked to name three things that changed warfare in World War I, I would come up with three different answers. My choices would be: the machine gun which killed more men than any other weapon in the war; the tank which helped break the stalemate of trench warfare; and the airplane, which brought a whole new dimension to warfare. My opinions are of someone that served in the military and looks at World War I from a practical warfighting point of view. Preston takes a different look at the war and bases her choices of a civilian perspective.

On April 22, 1915, near Ypres, Belgium, Germany released chlorine gas from near their trenches and allowed the wind to move it the mostly French defended Allied trenches. The heavy gas settled quickly in the trenches forcing soldiers to either asphyxiate in the trench or climb out into heavy German fire. The Canadian Expeditionary Force (13th Battalion) held the line with improvised masks. It was a day of heavy loss for both the Axis and the Allies. Panic and unforeseen success combined as multipliers adding to the death toll. Preston looks at the history of gas warfare before Ypres and after. It did not take the allies long to develop their own chemical corps. Chemical weapons had a terror effect when used in World War I, however their effectiveness was minimal. The German first use of the weapons added fuel to the propaganda machine vilifying the Germans. It did not take long for the British to counter with Livens Projector. The Livens projector, rather than relying on the wind, lobbed canister of gas at the enemy trenches. The use of canister was a loophole in the treaty that banned poison gas artillery shells. Although it had a shocking effect, and certainly the ability to make headlines, chemical warfare turned out to be more of a hindrance than a vital weapon. It was marginally effective until the troops were protected, then it became only a hindrance. Stockpiles of chemical weapon were available in WWII and never used.

On May 7, 1915 the Lusitania was sunk by the German submarine U-20. The sinking was carried out without warning as the ship approached the Irish coast. The loss of life is listed at nearly 1,200 people. The sinking was of great use to the allies in bringing the US into the war as one hundred twenty-eight of the dead were Americans. The sinking of the Lusitania is surrounded by stories, claims, and counterclaims. The Germans did provide warning to travelers, it was a British-flagged ship, traveling in waters patrolled by a country Britain was at war with. Britain had used tricks like raising an American flag on one of its ships as it entered British waters (a tribute to the American passengers was the official claim). Britain also instructed ship’s captains to turn to and ram submarines if stopped. There was also the Q-Boat program where the British deployed cargo ships to draw out submarines. These ships however were armed and when a submarine attempted to stop and board the ship searching for contraband, the submarine was fired upon. There was a definite escalation to the violence. The Germany attempted to blockade England with submarines in the same way England had blockaded Germany with surface ships.

There is also the British investigation of the sinking of the Lusitania. The German submarine fired only one torpedo, but there were two explosions. The British government in the process of their investigation said the German sub fired two torpedoes. Any surviving passenger that said only one torpedo was fired was left out of the investigation. The cause of the second explosion has remained a topic for discussion ever since. In the tragedy of the sinking the German government made made the following truthful claims: The sinking occurred in a declared war zone; the Lusitania carried 4.2 million rounds of rifle ammunition, empty artillery shells, and fuses (all listed in her manifest); the Lusitania was officially listed by the British government as an auxiliary cruiser. Germany claimed it was in it’s right to sink the Lusitania without warning. Allied media and propaganda said otherwise.

The third event was the bombing of London from the air. Germany tried unsuccessfully to bomb England from zeppelins several times in the spring of 1915. Germans attempted to hit military targets, but conditions, gun sites, and practical matters made precision bombing impossible. The raids caused damage and killed 557 people in England in the course of fifty-one missions and 5,000 bombs. The raids, more than anything else, created a feeling of terror. London and other cities blacked-out at night. The British planes were nearly useless against the zeppelins, either they were incapable of reaching the altitude or by the time they did the zeppelins were gone. Fear helped the recruitment effort and caused violence for some unfortunate immigrants with “German sounding” accents. What the bombing raids did accomplish was opening military targets in cities to attack. In World War II bombing of cities became commonplace.

Preston does not limit herself the six weeks in 1915 for her information. She goes back and covers the arms limitation treaties before the war and puts each of her three events into historical context. While perhaps not the three biggest military events or innovations of World War I, her choices fit well with public concerns during the war. Chemical warfare is still something the modern military prepares for as evidenced in the two Gulf Wars. It is now relegated as a hindrance to a modern army rather than a source of massive casualties. Bombing of cities and military targets in and around them is now commonplace. One has to look no farther than the “Shock and Awe” of the Gulf War. Guidance systems and technology make the bombing much more accurate, but there are still civilian casualties. The submarine perhaps has changed the most. It is primarily used as a weapons platform for ICBMs rather than an anti-shipping weapon. In the second half of the twentieth century, only one ship has been sunk by a submarine — HMS Conqueror sank the General Belgrano in the 1982 Falkland Island War. These choices made a change in how warfare is fought from the eyes of those watching. These three events probably had the biggest effect on the civilian populations during the course of the war. Machine guns and tanks had little effect on the general population of England, while the thought of a zeppelin dropping poison gas on London not only created fear, it was now a possibility. Preston gives World War I a look from a different perspective. Instead of the battlefield view many historians write, Preston seems to capture on what civilians would have read and learned of the war through the media. A very interesting perspective and well worth the read.

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