18. Was it possible, by the end of 1914, to comprehend the reality and scale of industrial war in Europe?

An earlier blog – The Belgian Narrative. Part 1 – gave some idea of military casualties in Europe by the end of 1914. The level, after just a few months of fighting, was on a scale never before experienced. Beaumont (2013 p. 28) gives the Austro-Hungarian casualties (dead, wounded, missing) in Galicia as 420,000. Strachan’s figure (2001 p. 278) for total French casualties through to just 10 September is 385,000. Hochschild (2011 p.117) gives total Russian casualties to the end of September as 310,000. Strachan (p. 278) gives combined German casualties for the first battle of Ypres as 80,000 and his equivalent figure for British losses in the same battle is 54,105. Hochschild (p.126) notes that by the end of 1914 the BEF had suffered 90,000 casualties. Strachan (p. 278) generally agrees with this level and notes that casualties to 30 November of 89,964 actually exceeded the size of the original establishment of the British Expeditionary Force. This is only a snap shot of just the first few months: it does not cover either all theatres of conflict or all battles.

At the time, it did not follow that the true level of casualties was either known or, if known, revealed. There was comprehensive censorship in place both in Britain and in Australia. Further, in the case of Australia there was the vast distance from the reality of Europe. In Britain, on the other hand, the constant flow of wounded men arriving back from France made it difficult to conceal the whole truth. Moreover, as British soldiers became casualties in France the letters back home began to dry up, and with this happening on such a scale it was increasingly clear that an unprecedented catastrophe was unfolding across the English Channel. Australia would not experience the equivalent situation until after the end of April 1915.

Casualty levels were quoted in Australian papers at the time, but the picture given was impressionistic, confused and understated. Reports in The Argus after the Battle of Mons (23/8/14) illustrate the point. On 3 September (p.7) under the headline How We Fought At Mons   Stories From The Front   Told By Returned Men  the British casualty figures appeared at the end of the article. In summary, an official list of British casualties showed that some 165 had been killed, 680 wounded and approx. 4,200 were missing. But, 5 days later, in The Argus on 8 September (p.7) another report gave total British casualties to 1 September as 42 killed, 147 wounded and approx 5,000 missing. Allowing for the discrepancy here in the casualty figures given just 5 days apart in the same publication, the more pertinent point is that a few days after Mons, at the Battle of Le Cateau on 26 August – a date well within the time frame of the 2 sets of casualty figures published in The Argus – British losses in a single day came to 8,500.

Whenever casualty figures were given they were always presented in a narrative intended to lionise the British or Allied troops and denigrate or demonise the opposing side. Copy was written so that casualty figures were filtered through the ideals of Imperial loyalty and national greatness. Heroic sacrifices and casualties could and had to be accepted by the grateful nation. For example, readers of the The Argus on 8 September (p.7) would have read in the same article that gave British casualty levels:

The British have established a personal ascendancy over the Germans, who are conscious that the result is never doubtful if the numbers are even. The British rifle fire has devastated every column in attack, while their superior training and intelligence enable the British to cope with vast numbers.

They would also have been buoyed by the following:

The British Press Bureau reports that 800 sick and wounded British troops are at Netley, in the Isle of Wight. Shrapnel had been responsible for the majority of the wounds. Cases of bullet wounds were few, which gave confirmation to the statement that the German infantry shoot badly. Cases of injury involving the loss of a limb are very uncommon, and the vast majority of the wounded were making good recoveries and would soon be able to rejoin their regiments.

Beyond the highly censored accounts of the fighting, understated casualty levels and the constant stories of bravery, duty and martial skill, newspapers of the time turned to other genres of reporting the War. For example in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 30 September (p.3) under the heading War Information. there appeared an unsourced and apparently random collection of war ‘trivia’. For those interested in the technical wonders of modern armaments there were items such as:

A 12-inch gun will send a projectile through three feet of wrought iron at 5000 yards.
12-inch guns fire a projectile weighing 850lb. whilst a 16.25-inch gun can throw a missile a ton weight 15 miles.
The guns of the H.M.A.S. Australia can pierce the heaviest armor used on any modern warship at a distance of 4 1/2 miles.
Machine guns fire over 1000 shots per minute. The best makers are the Maxim, Gatling, Gardner, Hotchkiss, Nordenfeldt and Krupp.

There were also items touching on military and naval strategy: The British dreadnoughts are of too great a draught to enter the Baltic, the sea being too shallow. This is therefore a safe hiding place for the German fleet.

Other trivia attempted to present some sort of comparison with earlier European wars: After the surrender of Paris in 1871 there were 534,000 French soldiers under arms and 835,000 Germans. The French lost during war 156,000 dead, and 143,000 were wounded or disabled. The Germans lost 28,000 dead, and 101,000 were wounded and disabled. French and German casualties had already exceeded these figures by the time the article appeared, just 2 months into a conflict that would run for another 4 years.

There was also the genre of ‘expert’ comment. Arguably, the most bizarre example of this genre appeared in the Sunday Times (Sydney) on 23 August (p.7). Again, it was unsourced but it was probably taken from a British paper. Under the headline – Modern Battles   Not So Sanguinary As Of Old   Improvement In Weapons, Followed By Decreased Proportion of Losses – the article set to establish that:

With the increase in death-dealing arms – machine guns of frightful rapidity, and so on – one would expect to find modern warfare more deadly than when men fought with swords and battle-axes or with flintlock muskets and pikes.
That, however, is not the case. Modern battles have distinctly shown that while numbers engaged on either side are ever growing larger, the proportion of losses has grown less.

There was even a table showing that over time – beginning with the Battle of Borodino (1812) and running through to the Battle of Shaho (1904) in the Russo-Japanese War – the proportion of those killed, wounded, missing and prisoners to total force engaged was declining. Accordingly, no matter how many were engaged in the conflict then underway in Europe, the rate of casualties could be expected to continue to fall.

Whether the article was written as propaganda or it was just superficial commentary from some ‘military expert’, the claims made in its opening paragraph – claims it was seeking to refute – did describe, accurately and graphically, the scale of the blood-letting to follow:

With millions of combatants facing each other in the present struggle in Europe evidently intending to fight to a finish, the carnage that must ensue cannot fail to be appalling. If, indeed, the same proportion of men were to fall as they used to do in battles of bygone times, half Europe would be absolutely drenched in blood.

However, as naive as such expert analysis could be, historians argue that even military commanders had been conditioned to underestimate the dreadful carnage to come. Hochschild makes the point that prior to the outbreak of conflict in Europe, modern weaponry had been reserved for colonial conflicts. He describes the Battle of Omdurman (Sudan) in 1898, noting the deadly efficiency of the new machine guns. Present at the battle were Winston Churchill – then a 23 year-old correspondent – and Major Douglas Haig who would go on to become commander of the BEF from 1915. According to Hochschild (pp. 18-19), on the day of the battle, some 50,000 Sudanese, twice the number of the British troops opposed to them, attacked on a broad front and were cut down by the latest version of the Maxim machine gun. There were 6 of the new weapons deployed and the particular model fired 500 rounds per minute.

… thanks to the Maxims, in a few hours the British were able to fire an extraordinary 500,000 bullets at the hapless Sudanese.
It was a historic slaughter. When the Battle of Omdurman was over later in the day, some 10,800 Sudanese lay dead on the desert sand beneath a brilliantly clear sky. At least 16,000 more had been wounded, and were either bleeding to death or trying to drag themselves away. The British lost only 48 dead.

Hochschild notes that while the new weapons demonstrated their killing power against poorly armed ‘natives’, military authorities were not inclined to consider what would happen if the same weapon was used by both sides in a European conflict. Indeed, Hochschild notes that the European powers appeared to have reserved the new weapons for exclusive use in Asia and Africa. Both British and German forces had used the new weapon in colonial wars. According to Hochschild (p.19),

This, to Europeans, seemed the machine gun’s logical use: “It is a weapon,” declared the Army and Navy Journal, “which is specially adapted to terrify a barbarous or semi-civilised foe.” No one imagined that either British or German soldiers would ever find themselves in the role of Sudanese Arabs, experiencing their very own Omdurmans in the very heart of Europe.

Elsewhere, Hochschild (p.110) also notes that for the military commanders of WW1 – including Haig, referred to above – their formative experiences in colonial wars had failed to prepare them for the true horror to come:

No one on either side was prepared for the fighting’s deadliness. Like the British, recent German and French experience of war had been of minor colonial conflicts with badly armed Africans and Asians: Erich von Falkenhayn, soon to be chief of the German general staff, had helped to suppress the Boxer Rebellion in China, and Joseph Joffre, the French commander in chief, had led an expedition across the Sahara to conquer Timbuktu. Neither side had spent much time on the receiving end of fire by machine guns or other modern weaponry.

Given the censorship and the news reporting of the time it was hardly surprising that people generally did not see the beginnings of industrial war, where new technology – the machine gun, modern artillery and barbed wire in particular – was to enable mechanised killing on a scale never seen before. Moreover, the people of the Empire carried with them into WW1 the tradition of lightning campaigns, the power and glory of the cavalry charge, the élan of the corps, the experience of limited casualties and the certainty of victory from countless Imperial campaigns.

Remarkably, there was one newspaper article at the time that did accurately foretell what was to come. Even more remarkably, it appeared in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative (28 August, p.6). The article was headlined: The Million Unit.  Vastness Of Modern War.  Question Of Endurance.  Can Any Nation Stand It? The article also appeared in a range of regional papers round the same time, for example: The Bathurst Times (20 August p. 4); Gippsland Mercury, Sale (28 August, p.7); Preston Leader (29 August, p.4). Oddly, it does not appear that it ran in the large metro dailies at the time.

The article was written by Adam McCay who worked for the Sydney daily, the Sun. Adam Cairns McCay and his brother, Delamore William McCay, according to the Australian Dictionary of Biography, were well-known and successful journalists at the time. Both worked at the Sun after its establishment in 1910, and both in fact later served as editor of the paper. Adam McCay would become famous as the literary editor of Smith’s Weekly. However, what was most interesting in relation to the article written by Adam McCay in August 1914 was the fact that the oldest brother in the family was Sir James Whiteside McCay, who, amongst other positions, had been federal politician (1901-5), Minister for Defence (1905) and military censor at the outbreak of the War, and who had just been appointed as Commanding Officer of the 2nd Infantry Brigade of the AIF. At the time, the oldest McCay brother was regarded as one of the best military minds in Australia; although his actual military career through WW1 was dogged by controversy. It is reasonable to argue that the thesis expressed in the article reflected the thinking of, or was at least directly influenced by, the writer’s oldest brother.

The basic thesis presented in the article was that the current war in Europe was on a scale never seen before and the sheer scale of the conflict meant that it was unsustainable. The title – The Million Unit – emphasised that modern armies, where the basic unit of size was 1 million men, had never been seen before in history. Nor was it just the number of men in uniform because there were also the millions required to run the war industries to sustain the conflict; and all those either in uniform or in the war industries represented lost productive labour and lost economic wealth. Economically, war on this scale was unsustainable on anything but a very short-term basis and McCay gave a time frame of only two months, at a cost of £600,000,000 for Europe as a whole.

McCay argued that the notion of victory coming from overpowering the enemy in set piece battles was no longer tenable. Armies of this size could no longer be simply beaten in decisive battles. Supplying and managing the million-strong army was extraordinarily difficult: to then employ it strategically and dynamically within a complex and changing battle plan was almost impossible.

Great battles to-day cannot be won by swift tactics. Skilful moves in attack, clever out-flanking devices, brave charges and assaults will not suffice to drive out of position of advantage a vast force of a million men.

There was a natural tendency, in a conflict of this scale, for both sides to be forced to pull back and adopt defensive positions and strategies. McCay believed that, once this occurred, it would become obvious that there could be no military resolution. His was a prescient version of the 1950s doctrine of ‘mutually assured destruction’. It is interesting in the following how there is no reference to British strategy, interests or troops. Perhaps this was to avoid the censor’s attention. The conflict is being presented as essentially a European one:

The best hope for the world, if it is to be a world-condemning war, is that France and Germany may during the next few days or weeks fight a great battle which will be indecisive of the fate of the two nations in the war. If on the Russo-German frontier a similar deadlock should occur, there will be an obvious moral for the Continent which has for a generation devoted its vital energy to the task of preparing for this Titanic combat. It will then be shown that war is utterly futile. With two nations armed for mutual slaughter, the best result in the interests of future peace would be that they should realise that after all their huge preparations, they are both so well-prepared, and prepared on so vast a scale, that the exhaustion of their capacity for fighting must come before either can gain the decisive victory.

But McCay also hypothesised that even if the warring nations were forced into defensive warfare, exhaustion overtook them and each recognised that a military victory was not achievable, it was still possible that the war could be protracted. What he wrote in late August 1914 in a newspaper article, whose circulation appeared to be limited to regional centres, was stunningly accurate:

It is at the present moment hard to see how Germany and Austria can be defeated save by exhaustion. Placed by political boundaries in the dominant middle position between their two strong military opponents (France and Russia), and with other strategic advantages in their favor in the geography of the German frontiers, they present almost insuperable difficulties to conquest by invasion.

In the next paragraph he surmised that, equally, Germany could not overcome France and it would therefore eventually have to fail by ‘exhaustion’.

But there was no definite time frame for the ‘exhaustion’ to take effect. McCay argued it would be inevitable; but he conceded that his belief that it must be soon – principally because of the economic cost of war on such a scale – could be wrong:

When the first grandiose assault of arms has worn out the strength of the nations, supposing neither the Alliance nor the entente to have decisively won, what is to follow? A frightful possibility is that war may continue on a scale less in its devastation, with the impoverished nations struggling on for years in the midst of their misery. But surely human wisdom and mercy could not tolerate this iniquity; nor would the nations which bear the awful cost persist in the futile horror.

As the European conflict moved to its entrenched, defensive phase, McCay underestimated the power of industrial-scale war first to maintain and then surpass the level of casualties of the first phase. He also overplayed the powers of wisdom and mercy, and underestimated the resolution of nations to persist in the futile horror. Nor did economic drivers force the cessation of hostilities. However, for those who at least read it – and no doubt some in the Shire of Alberton, thousands of miles from Europe, did read it – McCay’s article demonstrated that amidst all the censorship and confused and uncritical reporting of the opening phase of the European war there was at least the beginning of an understanding of just how different the current war was to be. But Australia in late 1914, both in terms of distance and time, was still a very long way from the new reality of industrial war.


Beaumont, J 2013, Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest NSW.

Strachan, H 2001, The First World War. Vol 1. To Arms, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Hochschild, A 2011, To End All Wars: A Story Of Protest And Patriotism In The First World War, Pan Books, London.

Australian Dictionary of Biography

McCay, Adam Cairns (1874-1947)
McCay, Sir James Whiteside (1864-1930)

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