Grim Foreshadowing – How Earlier Conflicts Predicted the Horrors of WW1

William Tecumseh Sherman gave the world a sneak preview of the sort of "total war" that would shock the world in 1914, during his infamous March to the Sea.

During his famous “March to the Sea”, William Tecumseh Sherman offered a frightening sneak preview of the “total war” that would shock the world in 1914.

“Many of the barbaric advances that have since become so closely associated with the War to End All Wars were actually foreshadowed in earlier conflicts.”

WHEN WAR ERUPTED IN EUROPE 100 YEARS AGO TODAY, many expected a short but decisive conflict – one in which the boys would be “home by Christmas”. More astute observers however anticipated a bloody and protracted struggle in which the lives of millions (even tens of millions) of soldiers and civilians alike would be snuffed out. The war that they foresaw would persist long enough to see the widespread use of poison gas, unrestricted submarine warfare and indiscriminate areal bombardments of cities, among a catalogue of other horrors. Yet many of these barbaric advances that have since become so closely associated with the War to End All Wars were actually foreshadowed in earlier conflicts. In fact, a good number had already been battle tested years, even decades, before 1914. Consider the following.

No Man's Land in Virginia? Confederate defences at Petersburg resembled the trenches and dugouts of the Western Front in World War One.

No Man’s Land in Virginia? Confederate defences at Petersburg resembled the trenches and dugouts of the Western Front in World War One.

Trench Warfare

It’s hard to think of the First World War without imagining the stalemate of the trenches. Yet the vast network of earthworks, dugouts and bunkers that characterized the fighting on the Western Front were not without precedent. More than two centuries before the term “No Man’s Land” had entered the lexicon, the Grand Alliance of the War of Spanish Succession had constructed a 16-kilometer long trench network known as the Lines of Stollhofen to block the French advance into what is now Germany. In 1704, France reciprocated with its own even larger Weissenburg Line. A century later, the Duke of Wellington fortified his foothold in Portugal against an onslaught from Napoleon’s army during the Peninsular War with defences not all that dissimilar to what would be seen in Flanders in 1915. The Line of Torres Vedras was a formidable 80-kilometre long system of fortifications that protected Greater Lisbon from the French. It took more than 30,000 labourers and engineers three years beginning in 1809 to complete the span of forts, trenches and blockhouses. Nearly 70,000 British and Portuguese troops manned the system, supported by more than 500 guns. A chain of semaphore outposts ran the length of the defences and could pass messages from one end to the other in less than seven minutes. And consider the siege of Petersburg, Virginia in the final year of the U.S. Civil War. It was marked by nine months of bloody trench warfare in which more than 100,000 Union soldiers attempted to breach a 48-kilometer (30 mile) line of earthworks that encircled the Virginia city. The North suffered nearly 30 percent casualties trying to break the stalemate; the Rebels’ lost nearly 30,000 troops — an eerie precursor to Ypres, the Somme and Verdun.

The March, 1862 Battle of Hampton Roads marked the first clash between iron warships.

The March, 1862 Battle of Hampton Roads marked the first clash between iron warships.


Dreadnaughts may have represented the cutting edge of naval technology in 1914, but steel warships had been doing battle for at least 50 years prior to engagements like Helgoland Bight, the South Atlantic and Jutland. Shortly after the legendary 1862 duel of the ironclads Virginia and Monitor at Hampton Roads, the world’s shipyards quickly began cranking out armadas of the new fighting ships. Europe’s first naval battle between ironclads came on July 20, 1866 when more than two-dozen Austrian warships routed a fleet of 26 Italian vessels off Lissa, Croatia. In 1905, the Battle of Tsushima, saw a force of 89 Japanese vessels, including four modern battleships and 27 steel cruisers shatter a flotilla 11 Russian dreadnaughts and supporting vessels – a harbinger of what lay in store just nine years later.

French gunners during the Franco Prussian War, 1870.

French gunners during the Franco Prussian War, 1870.

Explosive Shells

Exploding artillery shells, the scourge of infantrymen in the trenches of France, were first pioneered by a British gunnery officer named Henry Shrapnel in 1784. Of course, his invention was a far cry from the deadly projectiles that rained down on the battlefields of the Somme, Verdun and Ypres – Shrapnel’s bombs were little more than hollowed out round shot, packed with black powder and musket balls and rigged with a rudimentary fuse. By the 1860s, the British had engineered cylindrical rifled shells that could be fired from new breech-loading artillery pieces. During the same period, armaments makers throughout industrialized Europe were dabbling in such innovations as percussion fuses, high explosives, armour piercing projectiles for use against steel-hulled warships, as well as smokeless powder – all of which made possible the massive artillery bombardments that characterized the fighting on the Western Front a generation later.

A Japanese Holland-class submarine. Both Japan and Russia bought subs for their 1904-05 war from the U.S. And Germany respectively.

A Japanese Holland-class submarine. Both Japan and Russia bought subs for their 1904-05 war from the U.S. And Germany respectively.


When submarines made their combat debut during the U.S. Civil War, the world’s navies stood up and took notice. Despite the prevailing attitude that the weapons were devious, even unbecoming, world powers recognized the future of undersea warfare. By the turn of the century, most modern fleets were dabbling in submersibles. In 1904, Japan purchased four American-made Holland Type VII submarines and was preparing to use them in action against Russia. The war ended before the empire could make good on its plans. On the other hand, the Tsar’s navy had procured seven of its own subs from Germany and founded the world’s first official submarine corps in 1903. By 1905, Russian subs were patrolling the waters of the Far East and even saw action against Japanese surface vessels on two occasions. Within a decade, Germany was using the same technology to close the sea-lanes in a bid to strangle Great Britain into submission.

France's Aerostat Corps of the 1790s was history's first 'air force'.

France’s Aerostat Corps of the 1790s was history’s first ‘air force’.

Air Combat

Military aviation predated the First World War as well. The French army had established its own balloon division, the Aerostatic Corps, as early as 1793 – the world’s first ‘air force’. Balloons also made appearances in a number of 19th Century conflicts, mostly in reconnaissance roles. But in 1849 they were also used as bombing platforms. Within seven years of the Wright Brothers’ first powered flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C. in 1903, an American military officer by the name of Jacob Earl Fickel went down in history as the first person to shoot a weapon while flying an airplane. That same year, the French manufacturer Voisin was fitting its aircraft with machine guns. By 1911, Italians were dropping bombs from powered airships onto the heads of Turkish troops in North Africa. More explosives would soon fall, this time from airplanes, during the First Balkan War, as Bulgarian pilots bombarded the Turks using rudimentary scouting craft. By the outbreak of the First World War, most of the planet’s major military powers had burgeoning air services that they would begin by using mostly for areal reconnaissance. Yet, these early pilots would soon get their first taste of combat over war torn Europe; the era of areal warfare was on.

An 1841 Prussian "needle gun" bolt-action rifle.

An 1841 Prussian “needle gun” bolt-action rifle.

Rifles and Machine Guns

The standard infantry weapon of the First World War, the bolt-action rifle, was actually first developed in 1824 by a German gunsmith named Johann Nicolaus von Dreyse. His revolutionary bolt-action Nadelgewehr or “needle rifle”, unlike a flintlock musket, used paperless cartridges. Bullets were fired when a metal pin (or “needle”) struck a percussion cap in each round igniting the powder charge within. A revolutionary hand-operated bolt mechanism ejected the spent casing from the rifle and loaded a new round. The weapon became standard issue in the Prussian army in 1841. France adopted a similar rifle, the Chassepot, in 1866 and the British the Lee Metford in 1888.  The world’s first production machine gun pre-dated World War One by 30 years. Hiram Maxim, a 44-year-old, American-born British inventor, patented the technology in 1883. The 60-lb Maxim gun could discharge 500 .303 rounds a minute. While the British used the weapons with devastating effect against a number of uprisings in Africa and in Afghanistan in the late 19th Century, Maxims and other early machine guns also featured prominently in the war between Japan and Russia. The Tsar’s army alone purchased more than 400 of the British machine guns. They were used to great effect on the frontlines, offering a sneak preview of the sort of rapid-fire warfare that would characterize the fighting in 1914.

If some commanders had their way, the British and French fleet would have used chemical shells to break the impasse at Sevastopol during the Crimean War. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Chemical Weapons

While poison gas didn’t actually make its modern combat debut until 1915, had some 19th Century military planners gotten their way, it would be been used much earlier. A British cabinet minister by the name of Lyon Playfair proposed using shells packed with cyanide to break the deadlock during the 1854-1855 Siege of Sevastopol. Some in the Admiralty supported the idea, but ultimately cooler heads prevailed. Similarly, during the Civil War, Union planners considered (but later rejected) the idea of filling conventional ordnance with chlorine gas and then lobbing the shells onto enemy positions. By the end of the century, world powers were so fearful that poison gas might be used in a future war, they banned it outright at the 1899 Hague Convention. Only one nation present voted against the agreement – the United States. Incidentally, the same conference also prohibited the dropping of bombs from flying craft (which at the time meant balloons and airships) as well as the use of hollow or soft point bullets.

Whole societies were reorganized for wartime in 1914.

Whole societies were reorganized for wartime in 1914.

Total War

While World War One is often called a “total war” marked by mass conscription, propaganda, food rationing and the reorganization of whole national economies for war production, it certainly wasn’t the first conflict in modern times in which governments mobilized entire populations, industry and resources for conflict. In 1793, France’s revolutionary regime ordered a draft to create the Western world’s first million-man army. Later, Napoleon called up an additional 2.5 million men. During the same era, Britain introduced the first modern income tax. In 1799, Prime Minister William Pitt called for the levy, which amounted to 1 percent on incomes over £60 a year and 10 percent for those who made more than £200 annually. The tax raised £6 million in 1799 alone – the equivalent of about £1 billion today. It was repealed in 1816. In 1861, the U.S. government established a similar tax of 3 percent on all incomes over $800 to help finance the U.S. Civil War. It too was repealed in 1865. The War Between the States also saw the horrors of conflict visited upon civilian populations on a scale made possibly only by mass industrialization. Case in point, after firing Atlanta in 1864, the Union army under William Tecumseh Sherman burned, looted and plundered its way to the coast deliberately laying waste to vast regions while making little distinction between civilian and military targets. The idea was to cow the population into submission and cripple the entire Southern economy, thereby forcing Richmond to surrender. Certainly Sherman would have recognized and understood later policies like unrestricted submarine warfare, the Zeppelin campaigns against England and the Rape of Belgium.

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