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New Scholarship on World War I, 2000–2014: Naval War, Air War & Technology

By Frederic Krome

Naval War, Air War & Technology

With the histories of the eastern front, the Middle East, and Africa being integrated into the broader narrative of global war, the air and naval wars almost seem to be demoted as being peripheral subjects for students of the war.  Events that used to generate most of the scholarly attention (such as the Battle of Jutland, 1916) have given way to examinations of lesser-known clashes.  One such example is Eric W. Osborne, The Battle of Heligoland Bight, a micro-history of a relatively unknown naval engagement early in the war.  Osborne argues that German losses of heavy cruisers contributed to the kaiser’s reluctance to commit his naval assets to an old-style fleet action, which helped shape British and German naval strategy for the rest of the war.

Diana Preston’s Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy  is a lively narrative of an event that still engenders heated discussion—the torpedoing of the British liner Lusitania by the German U-20 in 1915.  Preston debunks many of the conspiracy theories associated with the event through an examination of how the British seized on the propaganda value of the tragedy.

During the war, aerial reconnaissance developed an important role in everything from artillery spotting to battlefield assessment.  The war also witnessed the rise of the fighter plane and the first use of strategic bombing.  As with other topics on World War I, the literature on the air war has grown, especially in the specialized journals and popular literature.  However, there has not been a revolution in the historiography.  For example, the standard work on the air war, John H. Morrow Jr.’s The Great War in the Air: Military Aviation from 1909 to 1921, was originally published in 1993 and reissued in 2009 without any substantive revisions, nor does it appear that any were needed.  If there is one area of growth in understanding the subject, it is in the nature of technological change and its relationship to popular culture.  In this area, students should read Guillaume de Syon’s Zeppelin! Germany and the Airship, 1900-1939, which considers the impact of the zeppelin on German culture from before the war to the Nazi era.  De Syon is one of a number of scholars who seek to place the impact of World War I into a wider context.

The German army was the first to use poison gas as a weapon, and throughout the war (and after), the Allies (in particular, the British) insisted their use of chemical weapons was in a retaliatory capacity.  Albert Palazzo, Seeking Victory on the Western Front: The British Army and Chemical Warfare in World War I, demolishes this assertion and provides detailed evidence that the British army was in the forefront of developing gas warfare and expanding its use beyond the western front.  Indeed, plans were drafted to use gas at Gallipoli, and it was used in the Palestine Campaign.  Marion Girard, A Strange and Formidable Weapon: British Responses to World War I Poison Gas, examines the nontechnical side of chemical warfare by looking at how different groups, such as politicians, academics, and the general public, regarded chemical warfare.  Some, such as Winston Churchill, were enthusiastic proponents, and only a few academics refused to participate in research and development for chemical weapons.  Had the war lasted into 1919, the US army was prepared to unleash its own chemical weapon, lewisite.  Joel A. Vilensky, Dew of Death: The Story of Lewisite, America’s World War I Weapon of Mass Destruction, provides rich details on the technical development of a poison gas that fortunately was never used, as well as the environmental consequences of its production, which lasted into the late twentieth century.

Works Cited