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Six Weeks In World War I Transformed How Wars Are Fought


One hundred years ago today, a German submarine, a U-boat, fired a torpedo that sank the Lusitania just off the coast of Ireland. The ship was a British-owned ocean liner; 1,198 civilians on board were killed. World War I had begun the summer before, but in the spring of 1915, as historian Diana Preston writes, a new chapter in the very nature of warfare was being written. In late April of that year, the Germans had used poison gas on a battlefield in Belgium. Six weeks later at the end of May, German airships, zeppelins, began bombing civilian targets in and around London. Diana Preston's new book is called "A Higher Form of Killing," and she joins us in the studio. Welcome to the program.

DIANA PRESTON: Thank you so much.

SIEGEL: Why was it that these three technologically advanced methods of killing people were all used by Imperial Germany in the same six-week period? What was going on?

PRESTON: The reason was the stalemate has been reached by this relatively early stage in the First World War. Initially in 1914, Germany's armies had advanced quickly, but at then, 'twas the end of that year being held back. So by spring 1915, both sides dug into a line of trenches some 450 miles long, stretching from Switzerland to the North Sea. So it's at that stage we have Germany turning to new technologies, new weapons, to try and unblock that situation and to regain the initiative.

SIEGEL: As you write in your book, the years before the First World War witnessed various attempts to control the arms race in Europe to declare some kinds of warfare of illegal. How did the men who decided to use either poison gas or torpedo civilian craft or bomb civilian neighborhoods - how did they rationalize what they were doing?

PRESTON: You're exactly right about all those conferences before the First World War. All of that just pushed aside in 1915, I think on the basis that the end justified the means. We know that in the very early stages of the war, the German chancellor, von Bethmann-Hollweg, got to his feet in the Reichstag and said to his assembled colleagues, look, I know that what we're doing in invading Belgium is illegal. We're violating Belgian neutrality, but you will see it'll all be all right in the end because we will achieve a quick victory, and it will all have been for the best. That argument applied again and again as we move through the spring of 1915 and we see these ferocious new weapons being unleashed.

SIEGEL: Of course, in addition to alleging war crimes on the part of the Germans, the English, and the French for that matter, looked at their use of poison gas and said we'd better develop poison gas, too, and we'd better use it the same way they're using it.

PRESTON: Yes. I mean, that's again exactly what happened in spring 1915. You have the real lid of a Pandora's box being opened, and you have the first use by the British of gas just later that year in September 1915, at the Battle of Loos.

SIEGEL: I think you write very interestingly about how the nature of killing and the fear of being killed in war were changed by these weapons - the cloud of gas that suddenly rolls across the battlefield or the bomb that comes from somewhere you can't even see where the zeppelin is or the torpedo from a boat you can't even see.

PRESTON: You see the beginning of what we would probably call psychological warfare. The idea was to create a situation where nobody could feel safe anywhere. Death could come instantly and horribly. You could never be sure.

SIEGEL: Writing this book as the news was full of stories of poison gas being used in Syria and barrel bombs being dropped on civilian targets there, did you find yourself completely pessimistic about humanity's ability to control the use of these horrible weapons? Or did you come by any optimism at all in this project?

PRESTON: As you say, our news is full of the continued use of poison gas. I mean, just today, Secretary of State John Kerry was talking about the impossibility of doing business with President Assad at a time when in Syria chlorine gas is being used and barrel bombs are being dropped. It does make me a little pessimistic. I think we can only continue to put our faith in renewed attempts to try to enforce international conventions as has happened since those bleak days of 1915 that we've been describing. And also to make sure that in whatever we ourselves do, that we don't compromise our moral conscience.

SIEGEL: That's the hard part, it seems, when the person you're fighting against has decided to trespass all boundaries and break rules. It seems very difficult to say no, we don't - we don't do that.

PRESTON: It is a very difficult dilemma. It's something which Albert Einstein put his finger on I think in the 1920s when sort of looking back on events in the First World War. He said even then it's only to be hoped that our technology hasn't overtaken our humanity. And I think that's something we need to be constantly on our guard for.

SIEGEL: Diana Preston, thank you very much for talking with us about your book.

PRESTON: Oh, it's been such a pleasure. Thank you so much, Robert.

SIEGEL: The book is "A Higher Form Of Killing: Six Weeks In World War I That Forever Changed The Nature Of Warfare." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.