The nature of warfare on the Western Front experienced a remarkable transformation between 1914 and 1918. A largely static siege war, unanticipated by all but a few maverick thinkers, quickly set in, absorbing millions of soldiers whose daily needs were equivalent to those of great cities. Completely new, or relatively untried weapons – aircraft, submarines, tanks, poison gas – were introduced and had to be integrated into traditional arms and institutions. Communications of all kinds in the battle theatre witnessed impressive developments.
All these innovations had to be combined into weapons systems: in land operations entailing not only the co-operation of artillery, cavalry and tanks but also with the revolutionary new potential of aircraft. Some recent analysts have hailed these developments by the end of the war as the advent of ‘modern’, twentieth-century warfare. War on the Western Front changed almost beyond recognition between 1914 and 1918.
These revolutionary changes have been broadly acknowledged by military historians for at least a generation; their debates have moved on to more complex issues such as the speed at which innovations occurred. In the case of Britain, however, there is still a great gulf between a small number of military historians and their followers, and the general public in understanding and accepting this transformation. When these developments are more widely grasped it will probably not end criticism of such emotive topics as generalship, attrition and heavy losses, but it should cause them to be reviewed in a new light. How was it, for example, that the British ‘donkeys’ were able to win a decisive victory in 1918?