World War 1 transformed the use of energy, in addition to transforming politics, cultures, and technology.
Today is Veteran’s Day, which emerged with World War 1’s armistice that took effect at 11 a.m. on November 11, 1918. It’s a day to remember the military who sacrificed themselves or put themselves at risk in the battles of the war. It has had various names – Armistice Day, Remembrance Day, Poppy Day – the meaning has been the same. The day has evolved to include other battles and service people.
World War 1 highlighted energy as a strategic tool in battle. Those lessons were translated to everyday life. Energy across the board played an important role in the war. Here are some examples.
“World War I was a war that was fought between men and machines. And these machines were powered by oil,” said energy historian Daniel Yergin. Look back to images of the war. People on horses and on foot were prominent in early days of the fight.
Horsepower to oil power is a theme in the war. Petroleum-burning ships, airplanes and motorized trucks. “When the Allies expanded to include the U.S. in 1917, petroleum was a weapon on everyone’s mind. The Inter-Allied Petroleum Conference was created to pool, coordinate and control all oil supplies and tanker travel. The U.S. …[was] the producer of nearly 70 percent of the world’s oil supply, the U.S.’ greatest weapon in the fighting of World War I may have been crude.” (Source)
Numbers tell the progress of energy. The British Expeditionary Force in France in 1914 had a fleet of 827 motor cars and 15 motorcycles. At the end of the war: 56,000 trucks, 23,000 motorcars and 34,000 motorcycles. These gas-powered vehicles offered superior flexibility on the battlefield.
Lessons about motorized travel in World War 1 were carried forward throughout the Twentieth Century. A young military officer in the tank corps, Dwight Eisenhower, was commanded to go cross country. He learned firsthand the troubles of transportation and strategic need of highways. “Eisenhower’s party completed its frontier trek and arrived in San Francisco, California on Sept. 6, 1919. Of course, the clearest implication that grew from Eisenhower’s trek was the need for roads.” (Source)
The result: In the 1950s Eisenhower initiated the Interstate Highway System.
Then there is electricity. “Historically, warfare was a daytime endeavor, but that began to change in 1879, when Thomas Edison filed a patent for a long-lasting electric light bulb. By the time World War I began, electricity was in use worldwide.” (Source)
Military leaders could use artificial light for troop movements and preparations. “Consider, for example, battleships: Electricity allowed them to use safe, precise electric signaling lamps (in lieu of flares or flames) to communicate with onshore commanders and with other ships. Electricity could also be used onboard to operate guns and turrets, fuel and water gauges, whistles, fire alarms and remote controls of bulkhead doors and other mechanisms.
“Electric searchlights using high-intensity arc lamps also changed warfare, from both offensive and defensive perspectives. Brilliant searchlights — bright enough to blind enemy troops — helped torpedo boats get closer to the ships they attacked. Searchlights were also used to spot enemy warplanes, which were starting to be employed to bomb cities, ports and factories.” (Source)
The wireless revolutionized warfare. Radio operators with portable transmitters were able to warn soldiers of an attack of poisonous gas, for instance. The German army used radio transmissions to guide dirigibles making bombing runs and radio was used to communicate with airplanes.
The war even affected infrastructure. “The shortage of artillery shells during 1914 and 1915 led to the (British) government emphasizing munitions production and setting up a new Department of Electric Power Supply, which intervened to extract more efficiency from the electricity system. This saw load factors increase – in Birmingham’s case from 25% to 40% but investment in new power stations was concentrated solely on munitions-producing areas.” (Source)
“Transformative War” is how historians describe the First World War. The obvious changes were the dimensions of destruction, nine million combatant deaths, villages and forests reduced to wastelands, national boundaries redrawn. The Great War may also have sped up the application of energy for new uses in society.
Interested in World War 1? Check the website of the National World War 1 Museum and Memorial in Kansas City. There are ample online lessons and resources. Below, a note held in the archives of the museum dated November 11, 1918.